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Reminiscences and Letters 


Sir Robert Ball 

Edited by his Son 


With a Photogravure Frontispiece 
and Eight Plates 




London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne 






W. V. B. 


In the year 1906 my father decided to publish his "Reminisr 
cences." With this object in view he dictated a considerable 
amount of material. Before, however, he had made any serious 
inroad upon his store of pleasant memories, other duties 
compelled him to postpone the compilation for several years; 
failing health eventually prevented the completion of the work, 
or even the revision of the notes which he had dictated. It 
was at his request that I have undertaken the duties of editor. 
Although it is true that I have been able to record some 
matters which in his modesty he might have suppressed, it 
is to be regretted that the whole work was not prepared by 

In revising the autobiography, in the selection of further 
material, and in dealing with matters untouched by him, I 
have had constantly in mind a precept which I found noted 
in some rough memoranda which my father had drawn up 
for future use. It was : 

"Try and give everything narrated a kind twist! " 

It will be noticed that, subject to what appears in Chapter X. 
concerning the lectures on astronomy, the personal narrative 
brings the reader only so far as the date when my father 
left Ireland to take up the duties of Lowndean Professor at 
Cambridge. Of the last twenty years of his life he had pre- 
pared no record. An attempt has been made to fill the gap 
by making selections from his voluminous correspondence, and 
by giving in a more or less connected form some account of 
his many and varied activities. 

I have published but few of his many letters to my mother 
and to members of his immediate family circle. For the most 



part they were of a character too intimate for these pages, or 
else related to matters of no general interest. 

I have to express my cordial thanks to my uncle, Mr. 
Lawrence Edward Steele, for valuable assistance in the com- 
pilation of this work. Indeed, it had been impossible for me 
to undertake it without his help. He has read the entire book 
both in manuscript and proof. One of my father's most con- 
stant correspondents, he had preserved a very large number of 
interesting letters, many of which appear throughout the work. 

My thanks are also due to my uncle. Sir Charles Ball, Bart., 
and to my brother, Mr. Robert S. Ball, for several contributions 
and suggestions, and for having read the proofs ; to Sir Joseph 
Larmor for an account of my father's mathematical work at 
Cambridge and Dunsink ; to Dr. Dreyer, Director of the 
Observatory, Armagh, for an account of work at Parsonstown 
and Dunsink; to Mr. J. D. Duff, Fellow of Trinity College, 
Cambridge, for reading the proofs, and also for a charm- 
ing description of Sir Robert as he appeared when playing 
golf; and to Miss Ella MacMahon for a number of useful 

I am also indebted to many of my father's friends who 
have contributed letters and recollections. 

Finally, I desire to express my gratitude to Professor 
E. T. Whittaker for the account of my father's mathematical 
work, which is to be found in the Appendix. He has de- 
scribed it as a " catalogue raisonne " ; but the reader who 
examines it, and who notes in particular the last paragraph 
on the last page, will see that it is something more than this. 

W. V. B. 

1 8 Holland Street, 

Kensington, W. 
March, 1 91 5. 


Ancestry and Parentage 


The Balls of Devon — An Astronomer Ball of the Seventeenth Cen- 
tury — Emigration of the Family to Cork — The Freedom of 
Youghal — A Pilgrimage to Somerset — The Family Portraits 
— Some Account of his Father — His Father's Connection with 
the Dublin Zoo — His Father's Marriage to Miss Hellicar — 
Birth of Robert StaweU Ball in Dubhn — His Brothers and 
Sisters .......... i 

Early Years [1840-1851] 

The House at No. 3 Granby Row — Some Remarkable Charades 
— The Great Gorilla — His Father's Museum — Edward Forbes 
(a friend of the family) — ^The Famine of 1846 — The Rebellion 
of Smith O'Brien ........ 12 


Schooldays [1851-1857] 

The School in North Great George's Street — Tarvan Hall, Chester — 
His Views on the School Life of those Days — Early Proficiency 
in Mathematics — Dr. Brindley (the Head Master) — Dr. 
Brindley's Dif&culties with his Landlord — A Visit to the 
Great Exhibition of 1851 — Sir Robert sees the Iron Duke — 
Some later Adventures of Dr. Brindley — A Contest with a 
Mormon .......... 18 


College Days [1857-1865] 

The Death of his Father in 1857 — A Letter from Sir Richard Owen 
— Entrance at Trinity CoUege, Dublin — His Tutor — His In- 
dustry in College — Dr. Brindley Prophesies a Great Career — 



College Friends — Scholarship — Awakening of his Interest in 
Astronomy — Application for Professorship at Cork — Richard 
Townsend — ^Athletic Performances — His Love for Botany — 
A " soliloquy " in 1861 — Advice to his Young Brother . 27 


Social Life in Dublin 

Dr." William Henry Harvey — J. Reay Green — " Bentham's 
British Flora "—Dr. J. P. Mahaflfy — Judge Madden — Sir 
Samuel Ferguson — Dr. William Stokes — Dr. Romney Robinson 
— He hears Charles Dickens read — An Oration by J. B. Gough 
— ^A Lecture on Chemistry — Charades — Father Healy . 43 

Parsonstown [1865-1867] 

He becomes Tutor to Lord Rosse's Sons — Description of Parsons- 
town — The Manufacture of a Great Mirror — His Pupils — Dr. 
Johnstone Stoney — ^Work at the Great Telescope — ^The Great 
Nebula in Orion — He sees the Great Shower of Shooting Stars 
— ^Visits to London — Sir William Huggins and his Spectroscope 
— ^The New Star Discovered by Mr. Birmingham — Dr. Dreyer's 
Account of Sir Robert's Work at Parsonstown — Letters from 
Sir Charles Parsons . . . . . . . .62 

The Royal College of Science [1867-1874] 

He is Appointed Professor of Applied Mathematics and Mechanics at 
the Royal College of Science — His Lectures on Mechanics — 
Marriage — Origin of " The Theory of Screws " — Gratitude 
to Dr. Stoney — A Note by Sir William Barrett — He is Fdted 
by some of his Old Pupils ...... 80 

Astronomer Royal of Ireland [1874-1892] 

His^ Appointment — The Attractions of Dunsink — Some Account 
of his Predecessors — Ramsden and Brinkley — Sir Wilham 
Rowan Hamilton — His Visit to Sir WilUam — Dr. Briinnow 
— Lairodectus Micrometricus — Professor Piazzi Smyth — A 
Lecture on Egjrptology — Work at the South Equatorial — An 
Accident Averted — A Terrifying Interlude — ^The Transit of 
Venus — A Story about Two Clocks — A Visit from the Emperor 
of Brazil — Farewell to the Board of Trinity College — A Note 




by Sir Joseph Larmor — Early Difl5culties at Dunsink — Some 
Account of his Private Life — Devotion to his Children and 
Grandchildren — His Experience of Horses and Agriculture 
— Kindness to the Undergraduates — Trouble with his Eye- 
sight — A Letter about Tides — The Spectrum of a Nebula — 
Some Remarkable Letters — A New Form of Lifeboat — 
Knighthood — The Royal Irish Academy .... 90 

Lowndean Professor at Cambridge [1893-1913] 

The Lowndean Professorship becomes Vacant — He is Appointed 
— His deUght at the Appointment — Letters to his Mother 
and Sister — A Letter to Mrs. Adams — Sir Da\'id Gill's Con- 
gratulations — Elected to a Fellowship at King's — M. A. Cantab, 
and the Pubhc Orator's Speech — Arrival at Cambridge — A 
Day of his Life at Cambridge — ^Takes the Chair at the Society 
of Authors — His deUght with King's Chapel — A List of Activi- 
ties in 1893 — A New Telescope for the Observatory — Frag- 
ments of his Conversation — Views on DayUght Saving — 
Christmas — Sir Joseph Larmor's Recollections — Charles 
Jasper Joly — Compulsory Classics — Radium — Meteorites — 
" The Story of the Heavens" — Professor Barnard — Laplace's 
Equation — The Discovery of Neptune — A Message to Pos- 
terity — W. E. H. Lecky — The Greenore Parties — Lord Kelvin 
— Comets — ^The SatelUtes of Mars — ^Vivisection — Views on 
Art — Failing Eyesight — Hohdaj-s Abroad — The Leonids which 
Never Came — A Letter to Queen Victoria — Interviews with 
Royalty — His Appearance in Vanity Fair — ^A Russian Mathe- 
matician — Egyptology — Lending Books . . . .136 

Lectures on Astronomy 

How he began his career as a Lecturer — His First Lecture — 
— Experimental Mechanics — The Midland Institute — Lecture 
on the Transit of Venus — " A Night at Lord Rosse's Tele- 
scope " — "A GKmpse through the Corridors of Time" — 
Notes of his Lectvire Tours — " Krakatoa the Mi^ty Volcano " 
— He attends a Trial — Interest in Manufactures — Visit to a 
Coal Mine — Lectures at the Royal Institution — Mr. Coulson 
Kemahan's Recollections — The Children's Lectures — A 
Mishap Averted — Origin of "Starland " — A Letter from Mr. 
Gladstone — The Gilchrist Lectmres — Methods as a Lecturer — 
His Correspondence — Sunday Lectures — Chairman — Quota- 

xii Contents 


tions — Some Lecture Anecdotes — Some Remarkable Letters 
— The Paradox Box — A Lecture to Convicts — More Advanced 
Lectures — A Dynamical Parable . . . . .188 

Scientific Adviser to the Irish Lights Board 

Appointed Scientific Adviser — Gas, Oil or Electricity — The Kin- 
sale Light — A Cruise on the Princess Alexandra — Some 
Lecture References — A story of Devotion to Duty — Electrical 
Phenomena — A few Anecdotes — ^Various Letters Home — He 
lectures on "A Tour Round Ireland " — The Kindness of 
the Commissioners — Bentham's " British Flora " — A Poem 
on " Elecampane "......., 246 

Later Association with Trinity College, Dublin 

His Love for his Old College — The Trinity College Dining Club — 
He Proposes the Toast of T.C.D. — AUusions to Dr. Salmon 
• — The Entrance Breakfast — Lecky and Plunkett — President 
Moffat — College Finance — Letters from Dr. Salmon — Views 
on the Fellowship Question . . . . . .267 


The Dublin Zoo 

Early Associations with the Zoological Society of Ireland — He 
is made President — His Gratitude to the Council — A Prescrip- 
tion for a Sick Snake — Difficulties with Animal Dealers — His 
Speech at the Opening of the Haughton House — ^A New 
Breed of Sheepdog — Some Recollections of Dr. Haughton 
— Elegy on the Death of a Lion — An Anecdote of the Prince 
of Mantua and Montferrat — Dr. Haughton 's Success as a 
" Grinder " — One of his Sermons — The Death of Dr. Haughton 278 

Visits to Norway 

The Vesey Club — Professor Lapworth — A Solar Eclipse Ex- 
pedition — His Shipmates on the Norse King — The Cruise up 
the Coast — Dr. Common's Observatory — Clouds Obscure the 
Eclipse— Lectures on the Voyage— The Arctic Regions de- 
scribed — A Fancy Dress Ball ...••• 302 

Contents xiii 

Visits to Canada and America 


The British Association at Montreal — A Voyage to Canada — The 
Atlantic in a Storm — An Iceberg — Niagara — Major Pond 
— Voyage- to New York — Boston — Booker Washington — 
Impressions of New York — Entertainments at Boston — 
Mrs. Eddy — Washington, the Pensions and the Library — 
Chmatic Conditions — He receives a Terrible Shock — Chicago 
— The Mississippi — MinneapoUs — " Pillsbury's" — The Yerkes 
Observatory — ^The Stockyards — Christmas in the States — 
A Palaeontological Collection — Fossils in the New York 
Museum — ^The Carnegie Works at Pittsburg — Detroit — 
Impressions of America . . . . . . .318 

A Visit to the Riviera and Italy 

Vegetation at Cannes — A Visit to the Casino at Monte Carlo — 
Gaming Tables and the Theory of Probabilities — The Lean- 
ing Tower of Pisa — Pompeii — Herculaneum — Vesuvius — ^The 
Museum at Naples — The Phlegraean Fields — ^The Aquarium at 
Naples — The Baths of Caracalla . . . . • 35^ 

Sir Robert and the Game of Golf 

He begins to Play the Game — Some of his Golfing Partners — 
Mr. J. D. Dxifi's Account — ^The Charms of Royston Heath — 
He Improves at the Game — His Qualities as a Partner — His 
Conversation — His Popularity . . . . . -373 

Sir Robert and Politics 

Sir Robert a Unionist — ^His First PoUtical Meeting — The Coal Tax 
— Invited to stand for Trinity College, Dubhn — Politics at 
Cambridge — Sir Richard Jebb — He Addresses a PoUtical 
Meeting — Mr, S. H, Butcher — As Chairman of the Repre- 
sentation Committee — A Letter from Sir John Gorst — In- 
vited to Represent Cambridge in ParUament, and Reasons 
for Refusal — Support of Sir Joseph Larmor — Views on Old 
Age Pensions ......... 380 

xiv Contents 

The End 


The Last Illness — A Maxim from Carlyle — ^The Funeral Service — 
His Last Resting-place — A Letter from the Master of 
Trinity, Cambridge ........ 386 

A Catalogue RaisonnS of Sir Robert Ball's Mathematical Papers . 388 

Index 397 


Sir Robert Ball .... Photogravure FrontistUce 


" Kate '' Ball, from a Drawing by Sir Frederick Burton io 

No. 3 Granby Row, Dublin i6 

Sir Robert Ball at the Age of 26 32 

Sir Robert Ball's Father 32 

Lord Rosse's Telescope at Birr Castle .... 78 

DuNSiNK Observatory, Co. Dl'blin 112 

The Meridlan Circle, at Cambridge Observatory . .160 

The Princess Alexandra 246 

The Scientific Adviser to the Irish Lights Commissioners 246 

Landing at the Fastnet 262 

The Landing-place at Minehead 262 




SOME of those flashes of humour with which my father 
delighted to illuminate the most tedious subjects are to 
be found amongst certain notes and letters which deal with 
his own family history. 
He wrote as follows : 

That branch of the family of Ball from which I am 
descended came originally from Devonshire. The earliest 
record of the Balls of Devon is that in 1539 one of them pur- 
chased from the Wallop family the site of Barlych Abbey, 
near Morebath. 

The following entries appear in the Morebath Church 


"John Ball, interred on October 16, 1697." 
"Elnor Ball, interred on May 9, 1706." 

Both these persons lived at Moor, in the parish of More- 
bath. In the old parish manor book (dated 1757) it is re- 
corded that, from 1757 to 1768, "one Ball of Ireland paid 
as a conventionary tenant 15s. id. per annum on Keens tene- 
ment." Again, in the burying-ground at the rear of the 
Baptist Chapel there is a very old tomb of the Ball family, and 
the pastor receives ;^5 per annum from some land left by 
one of the family interred there. 

My great-great-great-grandfather, Robert Ball, who was an 
officer in the army of Charles II., was born at Bampton, Devon- 
shire, on November 20th, 1651. Sir Peter Ball, of Mamhead 
House, Recorder of Exeter, is said to have been of the same 
stock. He died in 1635, leaving two sons, William, who 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

died in 1690, an eminent astronomer, and Peter Ball, M.D., 
who was also a student of astronomy. In 1674, Robert, 
of Bampton, emigrated to Youghal, County Cork. 

For the benefit of English readers who do not know the 
correct way to pronounce "Youghal," I venture to reproduce 
a "Limerick" which I sent to Captain Riall, R.N., one of the 
Commissioners of the Irish Lights, with whom I had many 
a pleasant cruise when carrying out the duties of Scientific 
Adviser to the Commissioners * : 

"There's a light in the harbour at Youghal, 
Such a very good station and smoughal. 

That the keepers elsewhere 

One and all, I declare. 
For that station incessantly boughal ! " 

In 1690 Robert Ball became Mayor of Youghal, and had 
a property known as Rocksborough (or Roxborough), near 
Midleton, in the same county. The coat of arms which he 
brought with him from Devonshire may be seen emblazoned 
on a window in the old church at Youghal. The escutcheon 
is near that of Sir Walter Raleigh, whose house adjoined the 
church. Raleigh's garden is one of the many places in which 
the local fire brigade is reputed to have attempted to extin- 
guish Raleigh when he lit the first pipe in the Old Country ! 

Robert Ball was succeeded by his son Henry, of Sandy Hill, 
County Cork, and of Morebath Parish, Devon. He married 
Ruth Stawell in 1728, and from her family I take my second 
name. Henry had a son Robert (b. 1729). His son was 
born in 1768, and was christened "Bob Stawell." My father, 
who was the son of Bob Stawell, was born in 1802. I should 
have said that Henry Ball inherited the Youghal property, and 
also the property in Devonshire. He seems to have lost or 
parted with both estates, such as they were. My grandfather, 
Bob Stawell Ball, who died in my infancy, lived on in Youghal 
as a respected citizen. He eventually became mayor of the 
town. It thus comes about that I am a freeman of the town 
of Youghal at the present moment. 

« « « » « 

Thus far his own account. My father often used to say 
that he was probably one of very few living men who enjoyed 

* See Chapter XI, post. 

Ancestry and Parentage 

the freedom of London and of the town of Youghal. When 
the former honour was conferred upon him he wrote to his 
brother-in-law, JMr. Steele (May 24th, 1899) : 

" Do you know that your correspondent is a freeman — 
freedman — of the City of London — or, rather, will be after 
Saturday, when he is to be sworn in by Gog and Magog ? I 
shall then be a freeman both of Youghal and London. The 
combination is, I think, interesting, and presents some instruc- 
tive points of contrast. The average is, however, distinctly good. 
I am also a liveryman of a City company — the Spectacle 
Makers, to wit. What dreams of Turtle arise before my dis- 
tempered vision at the prospect ! " 

Some further account of his connection with Youghal is 
contained in the following letter to his niece, Miss Maude Ball 
(August, 1906) : 

" The house that my grandfather. Bob Stawell, lived in, no 
longer exists. The site of it is now occupied by the buildings 
of the Provincial Bank. It is far up on the main street from 
the station end, on the right-hand side. My great-grandfather 
lived in the family place at Roxborough (I have not written it 
very plainly because I am not sure of the spelling!), near 
Midleton, between Cork and Youghal. 

"John and Kitty Green lived on Nelson Hill, close to the 
church where your father and I spent many days in our youth. 
I forget the number of the house, but the sexton or any old 
person would show you where ' Kitty ' Green lived. 

" In one of the houses in the bank buildings Mrs. Sam Green 
used to live. There her children, Alice Green, Mrs. Loane, 
Sam, Edward, and Johnny, w^ere all born. With them your 
father and I spent a month, during which we had many nice 
trips, such as to Capel Island, the cliffs of Ardmore and Glen- 
dyne. You have already, perhaps, gone to Ardmore to see the 
Round Tower and the cliffs, where Cornish choughs used to 
abound. Glendyne, which we also visited, is a lovely place, 
something like the Dargle. You ought to go there also. 

"One of the last houses in Youghal that we frequented was 
on the Mall — a large house nearly opposite the Court House, on 
the station side. There Charles Green, father of Willy Green,* 
used to live, and there, not so very long ago, the last of his 
three old aunts died. 

"It does please me so much to think that you take an 

* His cousin, the Rev. William Spotswood Green, C.B., M.A.. Government 
nspector of Irish Fisheries since 1889. He is well known as an intrepid explorer, 
having been the first to ascend Mount Cook, New Zealand. 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

interest in these matters. Your account of the churchyard also 
interests me. The sextoness I saw two years ago was very glib 
in pointing out the inscriptions on the monuments in the church. 
But I could not get any good information from her about the 
Ball headstones. When she pointed out one monument in the 
church, and at the same time gave out the inscription on a 
monument on the opposite side, it suddenly flashed upon me 
that she could not read! She was not quite successful in her 
attempt to conceal this slight defect in her education. 

" I think I have a copy of an inscription on a tombstone in 
Youghal of a Ball who died in 1748. It was taken by a pauper 
in the poorhouse at Youghal, who amused himself by tran- 
scribing it when he had a day out ! " 

In the autumn of 1896 my father made what he described as 
"a pilgrimage to visit the tombs of his ancestors." He was 
accompanied by his wife. He wrote the following account of 
this tour to his sister (Mrs. Millington) : 

*■' Ilfracombe Hotel (September gth, 1896). 

"We came here on Saturday, and we greatly like the place. 
I am, in fact, breathing my native air, for was not dear mother 
from Somersetshire, and was not our great-great-great-grand- 
father one of the old Devon worthies ? I have been looking 
up the family. We went to Chudleigh. We found lots of Balls 
in the registry there, and surviving traditions of Nicholas Ball 
(b. 1450), whose great-grandson, Thomas Ball, was aged 100 
in 1620. We found, in fact, a living specimen in the sexton's 
wife, who assured us that she was the lineal descendant of the 
Ball of Mamhead, who lost that splendid estate by gambling. 

" We go on Saturday to Bampton, where our said great- 
great-great-grandfather, Robert Ball, was born on November 
20th, 165 1. He was an officer in the army of Charles II., 
and came over to Ireland, and then married Elizabeth Vaughan. 
I did not realise till lately that the Devonshire estate only 
finally passed from our family in the time of our great-grand- 
father, about one hundred years ago. We shall also pay a 
visit to Mamhead Church on Sunday. It is near Dawlish, a 
place Aunt Alicia used often to stay at and talk of. If I did 
not shed tears of sorrow over the bones of my ancestors, I 
must admit that tears of laughter were not far off! 

"F. has been cracking her jokes on the subject in the strain 
you may imagine. After we had inspected the tombs, and paid 
our homage to the mighty dead, I ventured, in all humility, to 
boast of my ancient lineage, and to observe that mine was no 
mushroom family. Her reply was : * No ; it seems to be a Puff 
Ball family!'" 

Ancestry and Parentage 

It is said that the Nicholas Ball referred to in the above 
letter had the following epitaph on his tombstone : 

"Here lies Nick Ball, 
Who had a fall 

From grandeur to decay. 
His fine estate, 
His gold and plate, 

All lost was in a day ! 
' Mamhead ' the stake. 
And so he brake, 

Now turns he into clay ! " 

In 1897 a question was raised as to the right of the family 
to bear arms. My father wrote to Mr. Steele (October 9th, 

" I have heard that someone who is publishing a book offers 
splendid coats of arms to anyone who will pay the necessary 
fees, but I don't see the fun of it. The ' Coats of Arms ' wear 
to me the form of ' Black Mail ' ! " 

He was led, however, to make inquiry into the matter, and 
he received a letter from the Ulster King at Arms (April i8th, 

"I have made a search through the records of this ofhce, and 
beyond the short pedigree of three generations from Henry Ball, 
of Youghal (d. 1742), which I showed you when here, and 
which is connected with the Reid pedigree, there is no pedigree 
whatever recorded here of your family, and there is no mention 
whatever of any Arms. 

"Evidence that Robert (or Henry) Ball, of Camden House, 
Devon, was descended from Ball of Chudleigh, or that he was 
entitled to Arms, has yet to be produced. 

"I presume that you can easily claim a Confirmation accord- 
ing to enclosed printed slip, and should you and your brother 
wish to apply for one, perhaps you would fill up the enclosed 
form. The Confirmation could be made to you and the de- 
scendants of your grandfather; and as regards the difference 
to be made on the Coat, I would endeavour to meet your views 
as far as possible. 

" I may mention that no Arms are entered to you in the 
Knights* Register, and I should like to see the blank shield filled 
up for one of such world-wide reputation in science." 

As the necessary evidence was forthcoming, the arms were 
duly confirmed on April 24th. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

A full account of the Devonshire family of Ball will be 
found in the "Ball Family Records," compiled by the Rev. 
William Ball Wright, M.A., York (printed by the Yorkshire 
Printing Company, Limited, 1908). When my father received 
a copy of this work, he wrote to its author : "Your magnificent 
volume will make every Ball bounce ! " 

In the course of his lectures he often had occasion to illus- 
trate the lapse of vast periods of time. This he would some- 
times do by referring to the tables of descent, and asking the 
audience what "a hundred generations" meant to them. In 
the course of his lecture entitled "The Eternal Stars" he 
used to propound a question which bore upon the subject. He 
would say : " I believe most of us do not generally remember 
much, or even anything, about the personal history of, let 
us say, our great-grandparents. Do you doubt this ? Then let 
each man in the audience ask himself if he could tell straight 
off the maiden names of his four great-grandmothers." 

The reference to grandmothers also reminds me of what 
he used to describe as the "theory of grandmothers." "If," 
he would say, "you trace your lineage back, you will find that 
you had two grandmothers, four great-grandmothers, and eight 
great-great-grandmothers, and so on. When you finally arrive 
at the Garden of Eden, you had x great-great-great . . . grand- 
mothers. Eve was one of them. Where were the others?" 
We were always left wondering. 

A few years ago his cousin, the Rev. H. B. Swanzy, M.A., 
made and sent to him certain extracts from "The Council Book 
of the Corporation of Youghal " (edited by Mr. R. Caulfield), 
and from other works. Amongst the extracts were the 
following : 

" 1689. Robert Ball, of the Town of Youghal, attainted by 
King James II., in 1689, as being resident in England (i.e. a 

"January 24th, 1687. Robert Ball lent Corporation los." 

Upon receipt of these notes my father wrote to Mr. Swanzy 
(September nth, 1901) : 

" But now I have to thank you also for the most interest- 
ing extracts you have given me. I value them greatly, and I 
intend to go over them with the portraits in the dining-room, 
and fix the incidents in my memory. I am so glad one of my 
ancestors was 'attainted.' There is dignity in that word! It 


Ancestry and Parentage 

is also gratifying to know that when the Corporation of Youghal 
was in deep financial distress an ancestor of mine rose to the 
occasion and lent them ten shillings ! " 

* * * * ♦ 

Sir Robert's genealogical notes continue : 

This much must suffice for my ancestry, but if any curious 
person desires to know more, I can set down for his informa- 
tion the maiden names of my four great-grandmothers. They 
were : Jane Meredith, Molly Jones, Mary Ellis, and Mary 
Croker. I could also give him the names of at least five of 
my eight great-great-grandmothers ! 

I would add that any visitor to Cambridge Observatory may 
see on my walls the pictures of the ancestors whom I have 
just mentioned, in addition to a good many others. I have 
also in my possession many Edouart silhouettes of these 
worthies, including one picture of a great-uncle who fought in 
the Battle of Bunker's Hill. The following account of him 
appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine for November, 1832 : 

"Died lately, aged 80, Bent Ball, Esq., formerly captain 
in the 63rd Regiment, and one of the few surviving officers 
of the American revolutionary war, in which he received three 
musket balls in different parts of his body, one of which could 
never be extracted." 

My grandfather. Bob Stawell Ball, had four children, who 
lived to reach mature age. Of these the eldest was my father. 
His brother died when I was young, and as "Uncle Bent" 
was dearly loved by us children. My two aunts, Mary and 
Anne, were never married. 

My father left the ancestral home in Youghal in the year 
1827, and came to seek his fortune in Dublin. He was ap- 
pointed to a clerkship in the Castle, but the office routine was 
by no means congenial. His every leisure moment was de- 
voted to science and to cultivating the friendship of men who 
had similar tastes. He made a collection of botanical and 
zoological specimens,* which formed the nucleus of a large 
and valuable museum. In 1835 he became a member of the 
Royal Irish Academy, and of the Geological Society of Dublin, 
but he may be said to have taken his most important step when 
he became honorary secretary to the Royal Zoological Society 
of Ireland, in 1837. "The Zoo" was then in the throes of its 
• They are now in Trinity College, Dublin. 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

early difficulties, and I think it may be fairly said that much 
of its subsequent prosperity was due to his unstinted and un- 
rewarded labours. In a memoir written shortly after his death, 
in 1857, Mr. Robert Patterson thus bore testimony to my 
father's services : 

"The hardworking mechanic and the toil-worn clerk will in 
future years visit the Zoological Gardens with their families 
as they do now. When enjoying, amid its attractions, the 
innocent prattle of their children, such men will naturally ask : 
* To whom do we mainly owe the existence of this Garden, 
and the penny admission which makes it available to us ? ' Let 
some simple inscription, some unostentatious tablet, answer 
the inquirer, and tell to him, and to his children, that the 
name of their benefactor was Robert Ball." 

In 1836 my father attended a meeting of the British Asso- 
ciation at Bristol. Hospitality of all kinds was shown to the 
scientific visitors, and it thus came about that my father met 
Amelia Gresley Hellicar, a lady of good English family, con- 
nected on her mother's side with the Gresleys of Drakelow, 
whose history Mr. Falconer Madan has written so well. This 
acquaintance led to a happy marriage on September 21st in 
the following year. The second child and eldest son of this 
marriage was christened "Robert Stawell," whose reminiscences 
are to be set down in this volume. In after years a favourable 
opportunity of alluding to my association with Bristol presented 
itself. Following the parental example, I attended a meeting 
of the British Association in that town. 

A large party made an excursion to Raglan Castle and 
Tintern Abbey, where they were hospitably received by Lord 
and Lady Llangattock. We were entertained at luncheon in 
the Archery Pavilion, in the Castle grounds. I was called 
upon to propose a vote of thanks to our host, and I am 
credited by the local paper with having said something like 
the following : 

"During these little parties friendships are made — friend- 
ships which many of us have had reason throughout life to 
cherish and to esteem very highly. If report be true, on certain 
occasions even relationships of a peculiarly tender character 
have been formed in consequence of the opportunities afforded 
during excursions of the British Association ; and if my eyes 
do not deceive me, similar results will probably ensue on the 


Ancestry and Parentage 

present occasion ! I am not altogether romancing — far from it. 
The British Association met twice before in Bristol, the last 
time about twenty years ago, and the first in some prehistoric 
period the date of which I do not clearly recollect. In the 
prehistoric period to which I refer — I believe it was in 1836 — 
there was then, as there is now, great hospitality shown by 
the citizens of Bristol and the vicinity ; and among the visitors 
on that occasion was a tall Irishman, belonging to section D 
— the Zoological Department. This Irishman was most 
hospitably entertained by a family resident in Queen's Square, 
Bristol, well-known to those present. In this house was a 
young lady, who w^as naturally introduced to the young Irish- 
man. The acquaintance speedily ripened into friendship, and 
I think before the meeting was over the friendship should be 
described by a still more glowing term. The mutual attach- 
ment which thus originated led to the usual happy result. The 
marriage took place not long afterwards. In due course a son 
appeared. The child was properly vaccinated, had the measles 
quite correctly, and all the other natural incidents of child- 
hood. Indeed, to make a long story short, the individual who 
now addresses you is in this way the offspring of the British 

This leads me to a point which may be of interest. I had 
been described on the previous day as an Irishman, but as my 
dear mother was a Bristol woman — a thorough Englishwoman 
— it was obvious that I could not be described as altogether an 
Irishman. I would like to ask the committee of section A to 
decide the question ! They must take into account that my 
great-great-great-grandfather came from Devonshire. The 
problem may be thus stated : If a man's great-great-great- 
grandfather was an Englishman, and his mother was an 
Englishwoman, in what proportion do the English and Irish 
element enter into his constitution ? It can be shown mathe- 
matically that, if I were divided into thirty-two parts, seventeen 
of them would be English and fifteen Irish. Such being the 
proportion, I have to admit, and I do so w4th much regret, that 
I am not even half an Irishman. 

My eldest sister, Katherine Gresley, dearly loved by all who 
knew her, was the intimate friend of the late Robert Callwell, 
of Dublin, and of his wife and daughter. Sir Frederick Burton, 
late Director of the National Gallery, one of my father's old 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

friends, made a study of "Kate." The picture is now in the 
National Gallery, Dublin. 

The following sonnet was written by the Rev. R. Percival 
Graves on August ist, 187 1 : 

When in her life I saw that sainted look 

By the rare artist's hand of mystery given, 

Reflecting in an ecstasy to heaven 

The picture of my friend, I scarce could brook 

The loss of what I loved. Sure he mistook 

Not to have rather caught that sweetest flash 

That lights, I said, the darkly drooping lash 

Of her soft eyes, unrolling her heart's book 

Of sympathy with love, and truth, and good. But now 

I thank thee, Burton, for thy work inspired. 

The adoring eye, the heaven illumined brow : 

Thus stands she in the presence she desired 

God loving; loved by God; praying His love 

On all she loved below, loves still above. 

Kate married Dr. John Todhunter on May i8th, 1870, but 
only survived for a year. 

* * » * « 

Thus far the autobiography. My father always cherished 
affectionate memories of his sisters. When giving away prizes 
to the girls at a Cambridge school on February 19th, 1900, 
he said in the course of a speech : 

"I once knew a lady who had a remarkable power of 
attaching to her the love and friendship of those whose love 
and friendship were best worth having. There can be no harm 
in speaking of her now, and in speaking of her on this occa- 
sion. She died many years before any of the girls in this 
school were born. She had the power of inspiring affection; 
and what is no less valuable, the power of retaining it. No 
boasts would ever have been permitted to issue from her gentle 
lips, but I think, if she had chosen to boast, she might have 
uttered words which anyone might have been proud to utter. 
She might have said : ' I never lost a friend, though few 
indeed have ever had so many.' 

"Not until after her death did a little secret of hers become 
known. She was one of a long family. She had her many 
school friends ; she had ties by marriage ; she had an unusual 
number of most interesting friends in other ways, and her 
secret was the scheme by which she kept these friends in 




From the drawing by Sir Frederick Burton in the National Gallery 
of Ireland, Dublin 

Ancestry and Parentage 

touch with her. To her, indeed, the words had a special 
truth : 

" ' Make channels for the streams of love, 
Where they may broadly run, 
And love has overflowing streams 
To fill them every one.' 

We are always told to be systematic in our w^ork, and this 
dear lady was systematic, not only in the duties of her life, 
but in her affection for her friends. She counted up those 
whom she specially wished to cherish — her brothers and sisters, 
not a few cousins and other relations, her school friends, her 
other friends — and they numbered twenty-eight. And so she 
formed a little scheme. One day in each month was assigned 
to each friend. When there were a few days over, then certain 
particular friends got two days that month. It might be a 
visit or a letter. Perhaps it was some little gift ; perhaps it 
was some little attention to the child of the friend. It might 
even be nothing more than a cutting from a newspaper, or a 
few kind words on a card, or some message, or even without 
any actual communication whatever, it might be at least a 
few kind and sympathetic thoughts. That little calendar of 
the affections — of which no one knew except the tender heart 
herself — was indeed twice blessed. It blessed those that re- 
ceived; it blessed her that sent. I ought to know. I was 
one of the happy twenty-eight. The lady was a beloved sister 
of my own ! " 

• * ♦ * ♦ 

The autobiography then continues : 

My second sister, Mary Agnetta, died in 1868, unmarried, 
and my two younger sisters were Amelia Charlotte, who 
married William Millington, M.D., of Old Fallings Hall, 
Wolverhampton (she died in 19 12), and Annie Frances, who 
married George Butt, of the Bengal Civil Service, in 1875. 
George Butt died in 1879, and my sister Annie married John 
Thomson, of Edinburgh, in 1885. She is, happily, still living. 
My brother, Valentine Ball, C.B., F.R.S., had a distinguished 
career as a geologist, first in India and then as Professor in 
Trinity College. In the end he became Director of the Science 
and Art Museum, Dublin. He died in 1895. ^^y youngest 
brother is Sir Charles Ball, Bart., F.R.C.S., Regius Professor 
of Surgery in the University of Dublin. 



EARLY YEARS*: 1840-1851 

I WAS born in Dublin on July ist, 1840, at No. 3 Granby 
Row, Rutland Square, a house which had been leased by 
my father. It was large enough to supply not only the require- 
ments of a rapidly increasing family, but to accommodate his 
museum and library. The gradual change of social conditions in 
Dublin has considerably altered the status of houses in Granby 
Row. I may, perhaps, illustrate this by mentioning how, in 
recent years, I rather puzzled my dear old mother by asking her 
if she had heard that the Balls had gone back to 3 Granby Row. 
"What do you mean, my dear?" said she. I was then forced 
to explain that I had only the day before passed by and seen 
at the hall-door three balls (golden balls, however), indicating 
that a pawnbroker was now in possession of the mansion which 
had contained us in our infant years. That house had also 
accommodated innumerable stuffed animals, snakes, toma- 
hawks, and such other articles as in my childish memory I 
recollect in my father's museum. 

My earliest memories of home are intimately associated with 
the museum and the Zoological Gardens. As secretary of the 
Dublin Zoo, my father had much to do with all details of 
the business. In those days, as at present, the council met 
every Saturday morning for breakfast at the gardens. The 
chief business of the Society was transacted at these meetings. 
Thus the council would consider questions relating to the 
purchase and sale of animals; but during the week the secre- 
tary always had power to acquire any new animal that might 
happen to come into the market. The creatures so purchased 
frequently found a temporary resting-place in our house for 
one or more nights, awaiting their conveyance to the gardens, 
some two miles distant. Nor were these animals always rigor- 
ously confined within the limits of their cages. My mother 

* This chapter is entirely autobiographical. 

Early Years 

used to tell us that she remembered my sister Kate, when 
quite a small child, running into the parlour to ask her mother 
to come out and see the lovely little things that were crawling 
on the stairs. The "lovely little things" proved to be snakes, 
which had somehow managed to make their escape. A sloth, 
on one occasion, arrived in the evening, and in order to 
reproduce the climate of a Brazilian forest as nearly as was 
possible at such short notice, the sloth was hung on the back 
of a chair before a fire in the dining-room. I have no doubt 
the animal passed a very comfortable night. I well recollect 
how long afterwards we used to point out the marks of its 
claws and teeth on the back of the chair. As I have since 
heard, my father held the sloth to be rather a delicate animal. 
Consequently, it was sent as a present to the Zoological 
Gardens in Regent's Park, whereupon the council of that 
Society sent us a young giraffe ! I also remember a giant 
tortoise w'hich sojourned very happily in our kitchen for two 
or three days. But with the fear of de Rougemont before my 
eyes, I think it better not to narrate incidents which most 
certainly happened.* 

Among my earlier recollections are those of the scientific 
men whose intimacy my father enjoyed. The earliest of all 
these friends was, I think, Mr. William Thompson, of Belfast. 
He was a distinguished naturalist. He was an authority on 
the birds of Ireland. His book, in four volumes, "The Natural 
History of Ireland," which was, I believe, published after 
his death, contains an immense number of original notes 
made by his friends, especially my father. He died before my 
father, and I well remember how deeply his loss was felt. He 
used frequently to stay at No. 3 Granby Row, and long hours 
were spent in the private museum, where the two friends dis- 
cussed the wonderful collection which my father had brought 

In relation to this collection I may perhaps mention a some- 
what curious incident that occurred. Children's parties were 
occasionally given for our benefit. Among the attractions 

• I may properly relate one "incident" of which my father used to tell us. 
It was that on several occasions he rode round the kitchen on the back of a tortoise. 
Those who have read Darwin's account of the giant tortoise in the Galapaigos 
Islands, which is to be found in "The Voyage of the Beagle," will have little 
difficulty in believing that the tortoise can be a safe, if not a very rapid beast of 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

designed for the amusement of the many little friends who 
thronged the house, were charades, in which my father, with 
some of his zoological friends, were the chief actors. I re- 
member one charade in which the scene was that of a doctor 
treating his patient. The patient was represented by no less 
a person than Isaac Butt, who was then a distinguished Queen's 
Counsel, and who afterwards became the famous Parliamentary 
leader of the Home Rule party. Butt was sitting in a chair, 
and my father was the doctor. The doctor not only prescribed 
for his patient, but determined to administer the medicine in 
his own proper person. Retiring into the museum (which was, 
in fact, our back drawing-room), he picked up a dark bottle 
which appeared to be empty. One or two assistants were 
then called in to hold Isaac Butt in the chair, while my father 
thrust the bottle into his mouth and turned it up as if to 
administer a dose. Nothing could exceed the brilliance of Isaac 
Butt's acting ! He winced, kicked, and struggled, bringing 
down the house with thunders of applause ! The intense 
realism of his performance naturally stimulated the doctor in 
attendance to administer more of what he believed to be an 
imaginary draught. But it subsequently transpired that the 
bottle was by no means empty. It had contained snakes in 
spirit. The snakes had been removed, but a sufficient residuum 
was left unnoticed in the bottle thus forcibly inserted in the 
mouth of the unfortunate patient ! 

I recall another incident of the charades about this time. 
Rumours of the gorilla were just beginning to reach Great 
Britain. Fierce as the gorilla may be in actual fact, the real 
animal was nothing, either in size or appearance, to the terrible 
beast described in these early reports. At one of our parties 
Professor Edward Forbes (who, alas I died far too early for 
his splendid genius to mature itself) appeared decked out 
in robes to give a scientific lecture on monkeys. He announced 
that he was privileged to exhibit for the first time in Europe 
a specimen of the wild and ferocious gorilla from Africa. The 
museum door was opened, and there emerged, with hideous 
shrieks, a gorilla about 6 feet 6 inches in height, amidst such 
a scene of excitement that it was hard to know whether laughter 
or cries of terror chiefly predominated. My father had manu- 
factured the gorilla head himself. The rest of the costume was 
made of bear skin. Being six feet five in height, my father 


Early Years 

made an admirable lay figure, on which the costume, sur- 
mounted by the fearful head, could be displayed. As well as I 
can remember, Professor Forbes continued the lecture by show- 
ing how this remarkable animal could actually be taken to 
pieces. He first removed the mighty paws, and then the head. 
For many years afterwards that head remained in the pos- 
session of our family, to be used on state occasions for the 
edification or, more accurately, for tlie terrorisation of child- 
hood. At last, when my brother Valentine became Director 
of the Museum in Dublin, it was transferred to the depart- 
ment of Natural History.* 

The resources of the museum provided other "properties" 
of many kinds for such representations. My father had a 
full Maori dress, in which, according to tradition, he once 
appeared at a fancy dress ball in Dublin. He had also trumpets 
of various kinds, blunderbusses, and other such weapons. On 
one occasion he appeared as a bandit, armed with one of these 
blunderbusses, which he fired up the drawing-room chimney 
with a resounding report. 

Another friend of the house who often stayed with us was 
the late Sir Richard Owen. The skulls and bones were then 
very much in evidence. I remember, as a child, sitting on 
Owen's lap while he drew pictures of a Bengal tiger in full 
pursuit of his wretched victim. The successive pictures showed 
how the victim was approached and finally devoured. I kept 
up my acquaintance with Sir Richard Owen from those early 
days of 1848-9 until his death some forty years later. 

I have mentioned Professor Edward Forbes in connection 
with the gorilla incident. He was, I think, a very frequent 
visitor, and I well remember his long black hair and brilliant, 
intellectual face. He was an exquisite artist, as those who 
remember the vignettes in his great book on " British Star-fish " 
will testify. The evenings he spent with us were passed in 
scientific discussion. He had the attractive habit of sketching 
on any scrap of paper lying near, even while engaged in most 
earnest talk. When he stayed in the house with us my mother 
always took care to scatter half-sheets of notepaper and pencils 
on the tables. The pictures which he drew were collected 
afterwards, and a volume composed of them is still a precious 
possession in our family. It contains exquisite female faces, 
* It is now in the possession of my brother, Sir Charles Ball, Bart. 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

pictures of Turks in turbans, fairies, and all kinds of little 
fancy sketches. Sometimes they were humorous pictures. I 
specially remember one, "Ye Deathe of ye Lady Jane Greye," 
in which the executioner, armed with a gigantic pair of scissors, 
is about to snip off the plaintive head, which is held in a 
convenient position by an assistant grasping the hair. 

Of all those who came to our home in those early days, 
the late Robert Patterson, F.R.S., of Belfast, was the visitor 
we knew best. He was revered by us all for his kindness to 
our mother in her widowhood. He was himself a distin- 
guished naturalist. In fact, almost the first of the books of 
science placed in the hands of school-children in those days 
was "Patterson's Zoology for Schools." Some of the members 
of his family inherited their father's taste for natural history; 
indeed, one of his sons. Sir Robert Lloyd Patterson, eminent 
in business circles in Belfast, was an observant naturalist. He 
wrote a well-known book on the "Birds, Fishes and Cetacea 
of Belfast Lough." 

I was only six years old at the time of the Irish Famine 
in 1846, but I well remember the stories of that time. The 
total loss of the potato crop was the cause of this famine. I re- 
member that we, as children, were interested to note how 
the potatoes disappeared from the nursery table, their place 
being taken by suet dumplings. I also distinctly recollect the 
terrible fever which followed the disappearance of the famine, 
and how a very large area near the Royal Canal, on the way 
to Glasnevin, was occupied by buildings which were known 
as the "fever sheds" for many years. They were ultimately 
replaced by a more substantial structure, which now, I believe, 
forms part of the workhouse of the North Dublin Union. 

Then, too, I recollect the rebellion of Smith O'Brien in 
1848. There was distinct alarm throughout Dublin. All the 
windows of our house were provided with stout barricades, and 
my father, like other householders, had provided ammunition 
for defence, in case of attack. Indeed, I am not quite sure 
but that I, a child of eight years old, did not myself pre- 
pare some very desperate weapons which I took to bed 
with me every night, determined to sell my life as dearly 
as possible. 

The first public event that I can remember was the funeral 
of Daniel O'Connell in 1846. The procession passed down 


Sir Robert Ball's Birthplace 

Early Years 

Dorset Street, and was visible from our nursery windows at 
3 Granby Row. 

I remember my little head being thrust out of the nursery 
window to see it, and how my father said that it couldn't have 
been Dan after all (he died at Genoa), for the coffin was not 
long enough, and how I told Cullen, in the stable, what I saw 
and heard, with the addition that Dan was a very bad man, 
from which Cullen vigorously dissented ! 



SCHOOLDAYS: 1851-1857 

MY father's schooldays are thus described in his own 
words : 

Our education in early years was conducted by a series of 
governesses. They were very worthy ladies, and I am quite 
sure they did the best they could, though from the innumerable 
occasions in which I was in disgrace, I fear I must have been 
anything but a model child. When I was ten years old I 
went to a school which was then kept by Dr. John Lardner 
Burke in North Great George's Street. I was only there for a 
year, when it was decided that I should be sent to England. 
My dear mother, herself an Englishwoman, desired that we 
should be brought up to speak without an Irish accent. With 
this object in view, we were surrounded from our earliest days 
by English nurses. It was for the same reason that we boys 
were sent to English schools. In those days this was one of the 
arguments used in favour of sending Irish boys to school in 
England. In later years I used often to laugh at my dear 
old mother about this part of her policy, and the lamentable 
failure that it proved to be. For, if I may trust the somewhat 
frank statements of my friends, and not a few remarks that 
I have seen in the newspapers, the cordon of English nurses, 
and the six years which I spent at an English school, were 
wholly unsuccessful. Indeed, even the fifteen years of my 
life which I have now spent at Cambridge have not, I am 
informed, sufficed entirely to remove all traces of an Irish 
accent ! 

The school to which I was sent was near Chester, at a little 
village named Tarvin. My father took me there in 185 1. The 
wiseacres at home used to congratulate me on going to school. 
They used to say that my schooldays would be the happiest 
days of my life. I never believed them then, and I certainly 
do not believe them now. I can frankly say that I hated my 



school life. I dare say that this was my fault. My teachers 
lost no opportunity of impressing the fact upon me. 

Nothing could ever induce me to feel the slightest interest 
in my Latin grammar. In those days Latin and Greek were 
the only subjects considered to be of the slightest consequence 
in education. It followed that I was in a state of chronic em- 
broilment with the authorities. The lurid reports which they 
sent home caused terrible grief to my mother, presaging, as 
they did, certain discomfiture in this world. 

• ♦ * * ♦ 

I interrupt the personal narrative at this point in order 
to show, from contemporary records, that my father's progress 
at school was not so bad as he would have us believe. 

The reports he refers to must have been sent home during 
the first two years of his school life, for those received by his 
parents in 1853 were by no means unsatisfactory. Thus, for 
the half-year ending Midsummer, 1853 : Latin, "Fair"; Arith- 
metic and Mensuration (Upper Division of school), "Highly 
satisfactory, average place in class 15, in a class of 87 " ; 
Chemistry, "Attentive at lectures"; English Grammar, and 
Composition and Dictation, "Very Good." Dr. Brindley (the 
head master) appended a note to this report : 

"The fact of his standing fifteenth in a school of one 
hundred and ten boys, ranging in years up to manhood, is 
alone a proof of his strong reasoning powers, so far as Colenso's 
Arithmetic is a test of power. I think him a boy of superior 
mind, and in mildness of character and submissiveness to 
discipline he daily becomes more satisfactory." 

The report for the half-year ending Christmas, 1853, con- 
tained the following : Greek, " Satisfactory " ; Latin, " Very 
Fair"; Arithmetic and Mensuration, "Good." (Note added 
in Dr. Brindley's handwriting : " Extraordinarily good ! 
Eleventh of the whole school. — J. Brindley.") Conduct, atten- 
tion, and improvement, "Highly creditable." — J. Brindley; 
while in that for the half-year ending Christmas, 1856, the 
Rev. T. B. Rowe wrote : "Is, on the whole, first in the school 
in mathematics. His work is always very satisfactory." 

* ♦ * » • 

To continue the autobiography : 

The classes in the school were regulated entirely by pro- 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

gress in classics, and the boy who was not a classical scholar 
was generally regarded as an intolerable dunderhead. Things 
are no doubt better in modern schools. In one respect the 
utter scorn with which mathematics, or, indeed, any branch 
of learning other than the classics, was treated was not dis- 
advantageous to me. Two or three hours a week were devoted 
to such pursuits ; but, as the subjects formed no part of the 
regular curriculum by which class progress was judged, there 
was no regular course, and it was go-as-you-please or do- 
nothing-at-all during the hours supposed to be given to these 
subjects. But let me hasten to do justice to the head master, 
the Rev. Dr. John Brindley. He invariably employed good 
assistants. There were always excellent Cambridge men on 
his staff, and, consequently, if a boy really took an interest 
in his arithmetic or algebra, there was always a capable and 
a willing preceptor to direct him. Nor was he retarded if the 
other boys did not choose to learn, for, as I have said, each 
was allowed to go as he pleased in these subjects. 

I thus had the advantage of acquiring the elements of 
mathematics, and I feel much indebted to those whose labours 
afforded me the opportunity. Phe names of Tatham, Sweeting, 
and J. Keary come into my mind in this connection; but 
I must particularly mention my lifelong friend, the Rev. 
Theophilus B. Rowe. Rowe joined Brindley's establishment 
shortly before I left. He was six years my senior, and came 
to the school with the reputation of a Double First at Cam- 
bridge. He and I became and remained fast friends. I knew 
him later on at Bath ; and then, when I had sons of my own 
to send to school, I was glad to place them under his care 
when he was head master at Tonbridge. When he retired from 
Tonbridge to enjoy a well-earned rest at Bournemouth, I saw 
more of him from time to time than I had been able to do 
during his more active years. Our friendship grew with each 
succeeding visit, until at last, after a long period of declining 
health, he passed away. 

Before Dr. Brindley commenced his career as a school- 
master he had become to some extent known as a public 
debater. He had challenged the Socialist, Robert Owen, to 
public discussion. His discussions, I believe, attracted some 
attention at the time, and he always regarded himself as a 
successful champion of orthodoxy, both religious and political. 



What the merits of his services may have been in these matters 
I really do not know. I remember one large room in Tarvin 
Hall which was filled with enormous packages containing 
copies of published editions of Dr. Brindley's letters against 
Robert Owen. The fact that so large a number of copies 
remained unsold seems to indicate that the public had made 
no overwhelming demand for the work ! 

Of Dr. Brindley himself I would never say or think an 
unkind word. He and all his family were invariably good to 
me. Let me give an instance of this. I was always dabbling 
in experiments of various kinds. Every fifth of November they 
naturally took the form of fireworks. There was a certain 
amount of licence allowed in squibs and crackers on Guy 
Fawkes' Day. In fact, it was observed as a holiday, and Dr. 
Brindley himself used to appear in the evening with a bundle 
of rockets. We always had a good supper afterwards. But 
except on these occasions gunpowder in any shape or form was 
always strictly prohibited. Personally, I believe this to be a 
mistake, because boys will get such things, and the danger 
becomes serious when they commence to try experiments on 
the sly. Then, from the nature of the case, proper guidance 
as to how explosives should be used, and as to the precautions 
to be observed, are not forthcoming. It was in some investi- 
gations of this kind that a powder flask burst in my hand on 
November 5th, 1854. I was seriously injured, and the loss of 
my hand was threatened. I had acted in clear defiance of 
all rules, and my action brought trouble on myself and every- 
one else. Yet no one could have been kinder than Dr. Brindley. 
I was laid by for many weeks, and I shall bear to my grave 
very unmistakable scars from this mishap. 

Dr. Brindley used to give us excellent moral advice. Many 
of his precepts about "perseverance," and "sticking to your 
work when you found any," will not have been forgotten by 
any of us, but, unfortunately for 'himself, he sometimes failed 
to practise the precepts which he was never tired of inculcating. 
In the result, he was always getting into desperate trouble of 
one kind or another. Of course, as boys we didn't know all 
this at the time. But certain incidents in his career were not 
only not unobserved by us, but were forced upon our atten- 
tion in a manner that gave us (shall I say?) unfeigned enter- 
tainment and delight. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

I never knew how he started at Tarvin Hall, but, having 
taken this fine place, he was extremely energetic in securing 
pupils. He was also very successful in some of the scholars 
he turned out. When I arrived there, in 185 1, the school 
numbered something like a hundred boys. There were exten- 
sive buildings, schoolrooms, a lecture theatre, and dormitories. 
Most of these buildings he had put up himself, and he had 
done so although he had only a short lease of the premises. 
The lease was to expire in 1852, and had Brindley practised 
the excellent business precepts he was constantly enjoining 
upon us, he would, of course, have avoided the denouement 
which occurred. That which might be expected did, of course, 
actually happen. When the lease expired the conditions were 
that Brindley had a flourishing school of a hundred boys, and 
had enormously enhanced the value of the property by the 
expenditure of thousands of pounds in building. The landlord, 
not unnaturally, proposed to raise the rent. There was no talk 
of compensation for tenant's improvements in those days. 
Brindley became furious. He vowed that he would throw up 
the place, and further gave it forth that he would not leave 
standing a single stone of the buildings which he himself had 
put up. These preliminary circumstances only became known 
to us boys in much later years; but what actually happened at 
the time was quite within our comprehension, and it met 
with our heartiest sympathy and approval. Just before the 
close of the last half-year at Tarvin Hall, a crowd which in- 
cluded every able-bodied villager in Tarvin and the surround- 
ing district appeared in the playground with poles, ladders, 
and various implements of destruction. Brindley himself took 
the command, and they proceeded forthwith to demolish all 
the buildings he had put up. Let the fate of the lecture hall 
suffice. How they got the roof off at first I do not remember, 
though no doubt I must have been a delighted witness of the 
scene of destruction. But I do remember distinctly the throw- 
ing down of the walls. Billy Astbury (such was the name of 
Brindley's chief henchman) and his gang of villagers all applied 
their poles to the wall. Under Brindley's guidance the long 
poles were applied to the top and the short poles to the bottom. 
Working all together with a sort of rhythm, they at last got 
up a swing in the wall. This gradually increased until eventu- 
ally it went over with a terrific roar and lay prostrate. It was 


by means such as this that Tarvin Hall became a ruin, and our 
days at that establishment were ended. 

Before I leave Tarvin Hall, and deal wit-h the subsequent 
career of Brindley, I may just mention two incidents which 
come to my memory. The head master announced that he 
v.ould take some of the boys to see the Great Exhibition of 
185 1, provided the parents were willing to perform their part. 
This treat was primarily intended for the big boys, and great 
was the astonishment and amusement of the school when it was 
announced that an urchin of eleven years of age was also to 
be included in the party. Thus my first visit to London came 
about. I saw the Exhibition. It is but little more now than 
a memory of the water falling in a crystal fountain, music, and 
crowds of people. I do, however, recollect a stately figure on 
horseback being pointed out to us. I shall never forget that 
I saw the great Duke of Wellington himself. A year or so 
later I remember being one of the sufferers in a tremendous 
outbreak of scarlatina. There were sixty boys down, though 
not, perhaps, all at the same time. It was at this period that 
old Mr. Addison, Dr. Brindley's secretary, came into our room 
with the announcement of the death of the Duke. 

In more recent years I have occasionally gone to Tarvin to 
look at my schoolday haunts. 

On one such occasion, finding the church open, I wandered 
into it to see how far I could identify what I saw. There was, 
it appears, a funeral expected, and there were a few people 
about. One of these, an aged gentleman, said to me : "This is 
very sad, is it not?" I told him that my concern there was 
not with the funeral, of whicTi I knew nothing, but that I had 
come to the church for the sake of my recollections of the 
school forty years ago. "Oh," said he, "I was the doctor who 
attended the sixty boys through the scarlatina." "And I was 
one of your patients," I replied. It is a remarkable tribute 
to his skill that there was only one fatality among the whole 
sixty cases, and that was one of Brindley's own sons. This 
poor chap had been allowed to take a quiet walk in the sun 
at the beginning of what was hoped to be his convalescence 
after a severe attack. But boys are boys. He met with one 
or two particular friends of his, and they spent the whole 
afternoon sailing about a horsepond at the bottom of the field, 
in a tub which it was an especial delight to us to use for this 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

purpose. He was at last discovered by anxious nurses. They 
brought him in, drenched to the skin. He was put back to 
the bed which he was never to leave again. 

We were all sent home after the tremendous scene of de- 
struction I have already described, and we did not know what 
was to be the next step. Dr. Brindley had magnificent energy, 
and it was presently announced that the school was to be re- 
opened at Abbott's Grange, in Northgate Street, just on the 
outskirts of Chester. Of course, Brindley was brought to book 
by his landlord for his conduct at Tarvin, and he commenced 
Abbott's Grange under a heavy incubus of debt. Never- 
theless, his energy was so great, and he was able to point to 
so many distinguished men who had come from his school 
(especially my valued friend, Mr. T. B. Sprague, who was a 
Senior Wrangler), that there was soon a large muster on the 
school rolls. Before long the numbers reached 120. We were 
kept strictly confined wit'hin bounds, and saw but little of 
Chester. Sometimes we did get out by dispensing with the 
formality of asking for permission, which would most cer- 
tainly have been refused. I spent about four years at Abbott's 
Grange, being joined there by my younger brother, Valentine. 
It was at Abbott's Grange, too, that I made a friendship with 
George Richardson, which was happily preserved as long as 
his life lasted. He had a distinguished career at the university, 
and was known and loved for years as second Master of 
The College, Winchester. It was there, also, I came to know 
Ernest G. Swift, now the well-known police magistrate in 
Dublin. At that school also was Mr. Gumbleton, of Queens- 
town, famous as a horticulturist, Mr. John G. Gibbon, a member 
of the Irish Bar, and Colonel Wilson, of Tunbridge Wells. 
I could add the names of about half a dozen more. 

The embarrassments of Brindley, though the boys, of course, 
neither knew nor thought of such things, must have gradually 
increased. Again another crash came; not, indeed, accom- 
panied by such sensational circumstances as those already 
narrated, and the school moved to Leamington. 

I may here take the opportunity of recounting the closing 
incidents of Dr. Brindley's career. 

It was not long after my brother Valentine and I left Leam- 
ington that the school— now for the third and last time — tottered 
and fell. Brindley had a large family, and he was constrained to 



cast about once more for means of livelihood. In the autumn of 
1857 my brother and I were staying with my mother's relatives 
at Bristol, when we saw the town placarded with an announce- 
ment to the effect that the great "controversial orator (Dr. 
Brindley) hereby issues a challenge to any Mormon or Mormons 

to meet him in public discussion on the — day of , 1857." 

I do not remember the name of the hall. Nowadays such an 
announcement would be hardly conceivable, but those were 
the palmy days of Brigham Young. Indeed, it was noised 
abroad that many people were leaving Bristol for Salt Lake 
City to join the new sect which was then beginning to flourish. 
I am afraid my brother and I had no interest whatever in the 
Mormon question ; but from our knowledge of Dr. Brindley, 
and our personal experience of the strenuous manner in which 
he conducted his controversies, and, indeed, everything else he 
was engaged in, we thought that in all probability there would 
be some good sport at the meeting. Down we went, and found 
a packed room. A chairman was duly installed, and there were 
a number of people on the platform. After the usual formalities. 
Dr. Brindley rose to make his speech. He commenced by a 
general denunciation of Mormonism, and went on to show, by 
various lines of argument, the iniquities of polygamy. He then 
paused, and challenged any Mormon who happened to be 
present to come and have it out with him then and there on 
the platform. As the first appeal met with no response, he 
resumed his argument with greater vehemence than before. 
This time he showed if not by the Old Testament, at all events 
by the New, that a plurality of wives was absolutely condemned 
by the principles of Christianity. Again 'he paused for a reply. 
Eventually, after repeated challenges and strong insinuations as 
to the want of moral courage in the Mormons of Bristol, a 
figure, tall and gaunt, was seen to rise among the audience. 
A thin, poor-looking man gradually made his way up the hall 
and ascended the platform. We were naturally delighted, 
cheering him heartily in the hopes (which were not altogether 
disappointed) that we should see some fun. Brindley then 
attacked the man, principally on the question as to whether a 
plurality of wives was recognised in the New Testament. 
Brindley declared it was not; the man feebly asserted that it 
was. Brindley quoted his texts, and then his opponent quietly 
produced from his pocket a large black Testament. Everybody 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

was in a state of tremendous excitement by this time. Dr. 
Brindley himself was in a condition of acute nervous tension. 
At last the man found his place, and read out a text in which 
"wives" was put instead of "wife"! Instantly Brindley 
shouted, " A forgery ! A forgery ! " We all applauded vigor- 
ously. Dr. Brindley's excitement increased. He said, "I de- 
nounce you, sir, as a forger, and I seize that book." Thereupon 
Tie rushed across the platform to catch the man. The chairman 
endeavoured to intervene. The audience got into tremendous 
confusion, and the meeting ended in a free fight. Who ulti- 
mately got the Testament I never knew. 

Bradlaugh was then beginning his career, and Brindley 
fastened on him, with terrible denunciations, up and down the 
countr^. Whether Bradlaugh ever met him in discussion, or 
even replied to him, I do not know. But when Bradlaugh went 
to America, Brindley started off, intending to follow close 
upon his heels in order to declaim against the evil which he 
believed his speeches were doing. It would not have been 
necessary to mention this had it not been that, while Brindley 
was so engaged, he was taken ill in New York and died, literally 
a stranger in a strange land. 

This was the end of a man of many merits. He did his 
best for those committed to his charge, and he and all his 
family were kindness itself, when the occasion called for it. 
One of his sons, the Rev. F. Brindley, of Winwick Rectory, 
Oundle, has been a close, lifelong friend of mine. Another 
son of his, Mr. C. A. Brindley, is a well-known artist. 



COLLEGE DAYS: 1857-1865 

AT the end of March, 1857, my brother Valentine and I were 
-^j^ inexpressibly distressed by receiving a letter from my 
mother to say that my dear father was most alarmingly ill. 
He was struck down on Friday, March 27th, and, though he 
rallied a little, 'he passed away on Monday, March 30th. As 
to the cause of his death, my mother often told us this story. 
Archbishop Whately, who was a constant visitor at 3 Granby 
Row, believed much in clairvoyancy. My father, though often 
invited, refused to attend the seances which were held at the 
Palace. At length, however, he did go, and upon his return, 
my mother asked what the clairvoyante had told him. "All 
rubbish," was the reply. "She says I have an aneurism of the 
aorta ! " He did, in fact, die of a rare form of aneurism (dis- 
secting aneurism), which was totally unsuspected by him or 
his medical advisers. 

The sad news of his death was communicated to us by 
Dr. Brindley, and on that, as on every other occasion when 
circumstances really called for it, he was kindness itself. My 
brother and I were bidden to come home at once to the funeral, 
and were present when my father was laid to rest in Mount 
Jerome Cemetery. 

The esteem in which he was held is illustrated by the fol- 
lowing letter from Sir Richard Owen to mv mother (April 2nd, 
1857) : 

" The announcement in your letter, put into my hands just 
as I was preparing for my concluding lecture, is so wholly un- 
locked for and so distressing that I can scarce realise it. I have 
not been more shocked or distressed since the news of poor 
Forbes's death, and for that we were prepared. But our dear 
friend — the representative of Edward Forbes in Dublin — gifted 
with the choicest qualities of head and heart, devoted to every 
good work by which the social and scientific character of his 
metropolis and country could be raised — this is no merely 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

private or personal, but a national loss. And yet his kind, loving 
and manly heart, so well appreciated by all of us, makes the 
bereavement felt as if a dear brother had been called away. 

"The deepest sympathy will be lastingly felt by both Mrs. 
Owen and myself for her who best knew the manifold worth 
of the treasure which has been recalled by Him who gave it." 

Leaving his own story for a moment, let me give some 
account of my father's brilliant university career. 

As he himself has shown, he entered college in circum- 
stances which were sufficiently depressing. His father had 
recently passed away, and his mother was left with very 
straitened means to provide for a large family. It was 
in this position of affairs that he began his university life. 
To gain a sizarship, or a scholarship, was a virtual necessity; 
but to attain "honours" in Trinity College, Dublin, is by 
no means within the power of every freshman. I well re- 
member my father telling me how it was only after long and 
animated discussion, and promises on his part that he would 
work to the utmost of his power, that his mother could be 
persuaded to venture the necessary entrance fees. His career 
in college shows how amply his promise to work was fulfilled. 
The promise itself was the upshot of a resolution to which 
he had come in his own mind, to work to the utmost of his 
ability, to "scorn delights and live laborious days." He once 
pointed out to me the very spot in Sackville Street on which 
he formed this momentous resolution. 

From a diary kept during his first term as an undergraduate 
we glean the following facts : 

On the day he entered college (October 13th, 1857) he went, 
in accordance with ancient custom, to breakfast with his tutor, 
Dr. Ingram. On this occasion fifty-five men presented them- 
selves for entrance. He had not yet made up his mind how 
to shape his course in life. On October i6th he wrote: "I 
really think about the ministry of the Lord " ; and on 
October 25th he says: "I went to college chapel for the first 
time to-day in my academicals. I then came home and wrote, 
and studied the beginning of St. Luke. After dinner, chapel 
again; in the evening, more of St. Luke. I begin to think in 
earnest about the medical profession, but I am afraid it is 
very hard to get on in." 


College Days 

On December ist : "I really think I have made up my mind 
to join the engineering school." 

He often told me t'hat, during his later years in college, 
his working hours were never less than ten. That he had begun 
to recognise that it was necessary for an undergraduate to set 
himself regular hours of work is apparent from an entry in the 
diary on October 27th : "I determined to-day to put down daily 
the number of hours I work. To begin to-day — 9.20." 

He passed rapidly from one success to another, always 
taking a high place in the mathematical classes. On March 8th, 
1858, his former head master wrote from Leamington : 

" I feel quite ashamed that I have not sooner written to 
congratulate you on your excellent place at Trinity. I always 
had confidence in your success — your ability, and steady deter- 
mined application, must ensure that. Had you remained with 
us, as others have done, until about nineteen years of age, and 
been thoroughly prepared, I confidently believe you would have 
taken the highest mathematical honours either at Dublin or 
Cambridge. As it is, I feel sure you will be a First Class man, 
and a good one, too. In the loss of your dear father you have a 
double motive to excel — to do honour to his much-respected name 
and to ensure to yourself an honourable competency. 

"P.S. — Four nights' discussion last week; three nights* this 
week with Dr. Bay ley, head of the Swedenbor gians ! " 

The following memoranda relating to this period occur 
in his mother's diary : 

"1858. On August 6th I went with five children to Weston. 
Robert joined me in consequence of his having had an offer 
of a situation in the Post Office, which he declined. In May 
he passed another examination and obtained second First 
Honours, and in October he also obtained Honours, when he 
took the same place and obtained jC4 worth of books. 

" 1859. Robert has made great progress at college during 
his second year. In the October examinations he obtained the 
second place in Science and the sixth in Logics. Double First 
Honours and ;£8 worth of books. He also wrote a paper on 
the Gulf Stream,* for which he obtained a prize of jCs los. from 
the Philosophical and Literary Society, T.C.D." 

His later successes may be thus briefly recorded. After 
securing several book prizes, he obtained a scholarship, and 
was made Lloyd Exhibitioner in i860. In 1861 he was Gold 

* See page 188. post. 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

Medallist in Mathematics, First Gold Medallist in Experimental 
and Natural Sciences, and University Student. In 1863, 1864, 
and 1865 he was Fellowship Prizeman. 

* ^ ¥^ ^ * 

His own account of the early years at Trinity may now be 
given : 

I think it may truthfully be said that I was very industrious 
during my career in college. This was partly due to the fact 
that I was only compelled to study subjects which took my 
fancy. I found the years of undergraduate life the most inte- 
resting and important of my whole career. In this respect I 
suppose my experience is like that of other men. If the amount 
of interest and excitement in any other four years of a man's 
existence were proportioned to the standard of college days, 
he must indeed have led a remarkable life. This can partly 
be explained by the natural physical development of mind and 
body which comes about in the few years when a boy is attain- 
ing man's estate; but it is also due to freedom from the re- 
straints of school and the pleasure of associating with other 
minds in the same eager condition as his own. I certainly 
enjoyed my university life to the full. My opponents in the 
examination hall were, as is generally the case, my dearest 
and best friends in social life. Let me mention a few of them. 
Among my class-fellows I must give the place of honour to 
Francis A. Tarleton. In the examinations gradually leading up 
to the Moderatorship we had innumerable struggles, but 
Tarleton nearly always defeated me. In these contests, indeed, 
we were both surpassed in mathematics by Burnside, who was 
afterwards Professor of Mathematics in the University. We 
were all destined, however, to become "Professors of Trinity." 
It was, I believe, a unique occurrence in the history of the 
college — indeed, I never heard of it happening in any other 
university — that three of the students who appeared in the same 
class list at the Moderatorship Examination became colleagues 
as professors in later years. For Tarleton was Professor of 
Natural Philosophy, and Burnside Professor of Mathematics, 
when I was Professor of Astronomy. 

» « « « « 

I break off the personal narrative at this point to insert a 
letter which I received from Dr. Tarleton, now Vice-Provost 
of Trinity, Dublin, on August 30th, 1913 : 


College Days 

" I have been very much pained to hear of your father's 
ill-health. I have known him for over fifty-five years, and he is 
one of the finest characters I ever came across — straightforward, 
and reliable in the highest degree. He possessed a keen and 
original intellect, and had great industry and power to work. 
He was sociable and fond of fun, and of a kind disposition. 
He was very fond of acting charades, which he did very well. 
I have often seen him acting at his mother's house. 

"Your father, Thomas Little, and myself were the leading 
mathematical men in our class in college, and got Scholarship 
in the same year — 1860. Your father did not live in college 
rooms, so I did not see quite so much of him as I did of Bum- 
side and Little ; but still, I saw a great deal of him while I 
was working for Fellowship. Burnside was in the class above 
us, and dropped into our class, which we thought very hard 
on us. Your father very kindly asked me frequently to his 
mother's house, where I saw a great deal of him and his 
charming sisters." 

« » * « * 

Perhaps there are few happier moments in a man's life 
than that in which he hears he has obtained a Scholarship in 
his University. A Scholarship means much. In the first place, 
it is a reward obtained after a very strenuous contest with 
competitors for whose industry and abilities one has the pro- 
foundest respect. It means the delight and gratification of the 
family, and the dignity of a Scholar's gown. In my case it 
meant the acquisition of material advantages of a very important 
kind, because a scholar paid no college fees, had an excellent 
dinner provided for him every day for several years, and had 
an income of ;^i8 9s. 4d. per annum, which in those days 
imported much wealth. No subsequent prize or professional 
success can ever give quite the satisfaction of a Scholarship. 
On attaining this distinction a man feels his feet under him 
for the first time, and knows that the abilities of which he 
cannot help being conscious have received a hall-mark which 
the world will instantly recognise without question. When I 
obtained the University Studentship of ;^ioo a year for seven 
years, in 1861, I do not think it gave me the same satisfaction 
which the Scholarship had done. 

The Studentship, however, placed me in a position of in- 
dependence, and I was then at leisure to choose what my future 
career should be. This was a matter of considerable anxiety. 
Many of my friends urged me to read for a Fellowship in 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

Trinity. There was nothing at the time I should have liked 
more than this, but I was by no means sanguine of success. 
However, I did not see any other clear course open, and thus, 
after taking my degree in 1861, I commenced this very arduous 

Forty years ago there were some years in which no Fellow- 
s'hip was granted at all, and there was never more than one. 
I made the attempt three times. Examinations were held in 
classics, mathematics, moral philosophy, metaphysics, and in 
experimental physics; but it is not usual for a man to take 
more than two of these subjects. My subjects were mathematics 
and experimental physics. On each occasion I had to encounter 
Tarleton, my old friend and rival. He proved too strong for 
me, and after these three attempts I considered it useless to 
make a further trial. In 1865, still having my Studentship 
of ;^ioo for another three years, I had to consider what my 
future course was to be. I first thought of divinity, having 
known two or three other Fellowship candidates who had had 
distinguished careers in the Church. Two of them, who were 
slightly senior to me, I am still able to number among my 
friends. I refer to Canon Gore, of Chester, and Dr. Meade, 
afterwards Bishop of Cork. I commenced to attend divinity 
lectures, and I kept a term under Archdeacon Lee. I must 
confess, 'however, that I did not find the study of the contro- 
versies concerning the heresies of the Early Church a matter 
of absorbing interest. It was at this time that I received an 
invitation, through the medium of my valued friend, Dr. John- 
stone Stoney, which diverted me entirely from following the 
clerical profession. Indeed, it opened up a career for which I 
believe I was much better suited. 

In order to explain why this invitation was of such great 
importance I must go back a little. Shortly after leaving 
school I was given a copy of an introduction to astronomy 
by Mitchell, which is known by the name of "The Orbs of 
Heaven." I well remember sitting up to the small hours 
of the morning devouring this book. It delighted me as 
few books have ever done before or since. At that time 
I thought the style of the work most fascinating, although 
I am not now quite sure that my early judgment was 
correct. But Mitchell's work opened up conceptions which 
were entirely new to me. From it I learned the difference 



From a photoeraph by Masill. of Belfast 


From a silhouette by Edouart 

College Days 

between a star and a planet, and other elementary facts. My 
first lesson in astronomy was thus practically self-taught, for 
the elements of this subject formed no part of the curriculum 
in my schooldays. For some time after reading this book I 
made no further study of astronomy. I had no opportunity 
then of visiting observatories or using telescopes; and even 
when at college my attention was at first wholly absorbed 
by mathematical work. I revelled in conic sections as 
taught by Dr. Salmon, and geometry as taught by Professor 

But in the admirable arrangement of subjects in Trinity 
College everyone is obliged to go through a course of 
astronomy. At any rate, this was the case in my time. Again, 
the Honours subjects which I was studying frequently involved 
the application of mathematics to astronomy. The volume 
which we chiefly studied was a very beautiful work known as 
"Brinkley's Astronomy." At the present time I suppose it is 
entirely unknown to those who study this great subject. But, 
as I look at it now, it seems to me to be a model of what such 
a treatise should be, alike in scientific precision and grace of 
style. I was intensely interested in "Brinkley," and what be- 
tween that work and "The Orbs of Heaven" I acquired some 
slight reputation among my fellow-students for acquaintance 
with these subjects. On one occasion Mr. Barlow, who after- 
wards became Vice-Provost, was lecturing to us on Mansel's 
Prolegomena Logica — at least, I think that was the work. 
The expression "planetary perturbations" occurred in some 
footnote. "Have any of you," said he, "the least idea what 
is meant by ' planetary perturbations ' ? " There did happen 
to be one member of the class who had some notions on the 
subject, and he felt that his midnight studies of "The Orbs 
of Heaven " had not been altogether thrown away. 

In the later part of my college course, as well as when 
reading for Fellowship, I was compelled to tackle more formid- 
able astronomical works, such as Newton's "Principia" and 
Laplace's "Mecanique Celeste." At that time, however, I had 
no idea of devoting myself to astronomy in after life. It is 
true that I had leanings towards a scientific career. Indeed, 
w'hen I was reading for a Fellowship I off^ered myself as a 
candidate for the professorship of mathematics at Queen's 
College, Cork, which had fallen vacant owing to the death of 

D 33 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

the great mathematician, Professor Boole. I was not successful, 
and the fact of my applying would hardly be worth mentioning 
were it not for the sake of recording the name of my successful 
rival on that occasion. It was Mr. Robert Romer. After re- 
maining for a few years, he went to the Bar in London, and 
ultimately became the eminent Lord Justice. I met Sir Robert 
Romer a few years ago, and reminded 'him of the fact that he 
had beaten me thus early in his career. He recollected the 
incident, and proceeded to tell me something of his experiences 
at the Irish college. He was at first amazed at the high 
standard which his mathematical pupils had attained. "On one 
occasion," he said, "a student brought me a problem which 'he 
had been unable to solve. I offered to take it home with me, 
and talk it over with him on the following morning. What 
was my astonishment to find that I had to sit up half the night 
before arriving at the solution. I subsequently found that I 
had been the victim of a plot amongst the students, who wanted 
to find out if I was worth my salt. They had selected one of 
the abstruse problems which had been set in the Fellowship 
examination in Trinity College ! " 

Amongst the numerous classes which I attended at college, 
none were more delightful than those of Richard Townsend, 
who taught us geometry. His lectures were of a somewhat 
informal character. Those were not the days of the black- 
board. Dispensing with cap and gown, Townsend would sit 
at the head of his table, having before him a pile of writing 
material, together with sheets of carbon paper, by means of 
which he could write several copies of his notes at once. Thus 
equipped, he would discourse to us upon the geometrical 
theories of Chasles, the great French geometrician. The 
lectures often went on long past the ordinary hour. We took 
such notes as we could, and scrambled for the carbon copies. 
Even those which bore the least trace of what he had been 
writing were greatly valued. Becoming enthralled with the 
beauty of the subject, he would press on at a tremendous speed. 
The fertility of his mind was such that every theme would 
gradually unfold under his hand. 

The result was that towards the close of each term it 
would be found that a number of important subjects remained 
untouched. Consequently, the lectures used to get longer and 
longer, a climax being reached at the conclusion of the course. 


College Days 

He began at twelve o'clock, and was supposed to end at one. 
But I remember that on the last day of one term he went on 
and on, until, when the clock struck two, we were still hard 
at it. Finally, the clock struck four. This was the hour for 
chapel, and some of us, who were getting fairly exhausted, 
made a move as if we wanted to be in time for service. The 
genial Townsend frustrated us. "Stay where you are, gentle- 
men," he cried; "I'll tell the Dean to give you all credit for 
chapel." Having headed us off in this way, we could not leave, 
and the carbon sheets continued to fly about again until five 
o'clock, when t'he dinner-bell rang. (We dined early in those 

"Will you give us credit for dinner ? " said one of the under- 
graduates slyly. Townsend himself, dear old fellow that he 
was, joined us in a roar of laughter, and the lecture and the 
term came to an end. 

If anybody makes inquiry as to my athletic performances 
in those days, I have to confess that they were almost nil. I 
would hasten to add that, with the single exception of cricket, 
there were hardly any games. At any rate, this was t'he case 
in Trinity College. I believe some hockey was played, but 
I do not remember any football ; and lawn tennis did not make 
its appearance till nearly twenty years after I left school. I 
can, however, confess to one distinction as a cricketer. It 
was generally admitted that I was able to hit higher into the 
air than anyone else in the college cricket club ! I do not 
remember that anyone else except myself ever had to pay for 
replacing a window in Nassau Street which had been broken by 
a ball hit from the College Park ! 

In those days we were in the habit of taking long rambles 
on occasional holidays. There was one walk through the 
environs of Dublin which came to be known as "the as hereto- 
fore, so always." Dublin is superbly situated for this kind of 
recreation. The Three Rock and Two Rock Mountains pro- 
vide a noble walk within easy reach ; and it is not much farther 
to strike across the military road to Glendalough, or to ascend 
Djouce or Lugnaquilla. Bicycles had not been invented, so 
walking exercise was much more extensively cultivated tTian it 
is now. I am not at all sure that our glorious tramps over 
the mountains were not quite as healthy and invigorating as 
the athletics of the present day. The walk was often varied by 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

splendid swims in the sea at the Bailey Rocks at Howth, or 
at Sandycove or Greystones. 

A walk along the quays in Dublin was always a source of 
enjoyment to me in my college days. Indeed, throughout my 
life I have always taken the greatest delight in ships and 
shipping. When I was a young man a visit to my mother's 
relations at Bristol was a frequent event, and, instead of taking 
the route which involved the shortest sea passage, I always 
made the direct voyage to Bristol. I made the journey so often 
that I became very familiar with the officers. The captain of 
one of the steamers — they were paddle-boats in those days — 
was a fiery individual who could not brook any delay at 
starting. Indeed, a crowd often assembled at the North Wall 
to listen to the torrent of invective which poured down from 
the bridge. I shall not attempt to reproduce his language. 
Upon one occasion when I was bound for Bristol, under the 
care of this famous mariner, I was waiting on the deck, watch- 
ing the North Wall porters and riverside loafers assisting the 
crew to load the last remnants of the cargo and luggage. The 
scheduled time for starting had already been long past, and 
the captain was raging like a lion up and down the bridge, 
pronouncing anathema upon all and sundry. Suddenly a 
groom leading a restive thoroughbred made his appearance on 
the quay. He insisted on being taken on board with the animal, 
stating that it was as much as his place was worth to miss 
the boat, the horse being booked for a race on t'he following 
day. Amid a volley of abuse from the bridge we could discern 
that the captain was willing to take the horse on board if they 
would look alive about it. Then the trouble began. Nothing 
would induce the animal to cross the gangway. Coaxing and 
threats were wholly in vain. As a last resort the donkey-engine 
was brought into requisition. Sundry large straps having been 
put round the 'horse, it was fairly lifted off its feet and dumped 
on board all in a heap. "Leave go, there!" shouted the 
captain. The last cable was cast off, and the vessel, moving 
out into the fairway, headed down the river. 

When he had made the horse comfortable, I overheard the 
groom inquiring of one of the sailors: "When do we reach 
Holyhead ? " 

"Begorrah! sir," said the sailor, "ye'll not get to Holy- 
liead by this boat. Shure, we're going to Bristol ! " 


College Days 

"Bristol ! " said the excited groom. "Shure, I was told it 
was the Holyhead steamer. Stop her ! Let me get back ! I'll 
be all desthroyed if I don't get to Holyhead." 

I need hardly add that the plethoric skipper was deaf to all 
entreaty. To Bristol the groom had to go, together with his 
horse. How they eventually reached their destination I never 


« « » « « 

So ends my father's own account of his college life. His 
disappointment was that he did not become a Fellow of Trinity ; 
and who shall say that this was not in reality a splendid failure ? 
Set free from the closer trammels of a university, he was at 
liberty to shape his own career in the world of science. 

During his walks he was always on the look-out for things 
of scientific interest. He wrote in his journal (March 26th, 
1864) : " I walked to-day with Snip (now Sir Charles Bent 
Ball, Bart., F.R.C.S.) to Ballinascorney, our first explora- 
tion of that neighbourhood. The day was very cold, and 
we had heavy showers of hail. Snip found no eggs — con- 
trary to his hopes — nor were many plants to be had, members 
of the Catkin family being those found chiefly. The place 
has some geological interest. In t'he valley, excavated, I pre- 
sume, by the River Dodder, masses of the cliff have been 
detached and have fallen down. They consist of imperfectly 
aggregated conglomerate, the pebbles of which are in many 
cases coated with crystallised carbonate of lime." 

He took every opportunity to study botany. On April 5th, 
1864, he wrote : 

"I have been meditating in my leisure moments on botany, 
more particularly the distribution of plants. It would be a 
fine thing to procure a skeleton map of the British Isles, one 
for each species of plant, and then to collate the local flora 
from all parts of the kingdom, and dot into each map every 
place where the species has been recorded. The work would 
be a vastly laborious one, but if completed it would be most 
valuable. I would propose then to compare these 2,000 maps 
with the geological features, as well as the contour, etc., and 
I cannot but think valuable results would follow." 

I append certain memoranda which were written by him 
about this period. They may not be without interest to tliose 
who knew him in later life. They show that, at this early age, 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

he was endeavouring to cultivate systematic habits of thought 
and gentleness of character. 

Early in i860 he wrote an essay from which I have taken 
the following passages : 

"I find that I am gradually becoming more conscious of 
the value of time. Hardly a day elapses but something occurs 
to me which I should like to do, or some subject which I 
should like to study; but these are all deferred to a more 
convenient time. I look forward to the vacation as a period 
when I can study subjects not so immediately connected with 
my college career as to justify my devoting other time to 
them. . . . 

"The vacation comes and goes! I almost know not how, 
but I have not done what I want. I have the reputation of 
being a fairly hard reader, and perhaps this may account for 
it, as I am confident it is true that the more one desires to 
know, or the more one knows, the more one sees t'he immensity 
that still might be learnt. . . . Scientific studies possess this 
characteristic in an eminent degree — before we commence in 
many cases we do not know even what we are going to learn, 
but as we advance in our subject, new paths for discovery, new 
fields for observation, crowd upon us on every side. The more 
we go on, the more endless seems our road; the more we teach 
ourselves, the more inexhaustible seems the fund of information 
for our benefit. Take as a simple example the key to all 
(physical) sciences — mathematics. A person unacquainted with 
them has no idea of the possibility of such a science. He 
cannot form the most remote comprehension of its nature. 
Telling him it is the science of magnitude rather increases than 
allays his perplexity. He begins to study Euclid, and although 
he cannot see anything beyond geometry, yet still there is, 
he perceives, a tolerable variety in geometrical speculation. 
Algebra and its application to geometry still further increase 
his view. He then sees that geometrical details are superseded 
by more refined and comprehensive powers of analysis, but it 
is not until the mind of Newton stimulates him, when he reads 
with wonder the sublime investigations of the differential 
calculus, that he begins to perceive the field of mathematics 
and to convince himself that he is at the outset of an unlimited 
yet productive course of study. This position, however, is 
not to be attained without work. There is no denying the fact 


College Days 

that mathematics is the most difficult of the rational, or even 
physical, sciences, though this latter depends for its very exist- 
ence on some of the most advanced deductions in mathematics. 

" I always had a great dislike for the too common practice of 
testing scientific theories by the Bible. The Bible was not 
designed to teach external truths. If it were, every discovery 
that ever will be made should be contained in it. If it had 
endeavoured to grasp them it would have failed altogether in 
its purpKDse — at least, as far as we can judge of it. Imagine 
for a moment, had the Apostle Paul, in one of his discourses, 
told his hearers that by means of steam, men could be con- 
veyed at a rapid rate from one place to another; that there 
would be an invention whereby knowledge could be conveyed 
round the whole world in a second of time. If he "had promul- 
gated such doctrines as this, his hearers would have said at 
once that they were false ; and if they thought what they them- 
selves were competent to form an opinion on was false, how 
much more would they "have disbelieved the marvellous revela- 
tions of Christianity ! For this reason the Bible speakers must 
have accommodated themselves to the natural doctrines then 
prevalent, and hence it is absurd to test, or to attempt to test, 
any (not perhaps any, but many) doctrines of physical truth 
by the Bible. Of course, any speculations which have an 
infidel or atheistical tendency must be repudiated as contrary 
to t'he whole tenor of the Bible. . . ." 

He concludes his essay thus : 

"I have not sufficiently practised (i) kindness, (2) modera- 
tion, (3) gentleness, (4) sufficient thought before speaking, (5) 
the repression of sarcastic habits. I am sure I could enumerate 
more defects of character, but since it is not my intention to 
pen here any terrific regulation with respect to them, I will 
refrain from so doing. I would only wish that if I am spared 
till this time twelve months I may be able to look upon this 
paper, and think, that without incurring the risk of broken 
resolutions, I have made some improvement on the heads above- 

At the beginning of 1861 he wrote in his diary : 

"5.30 A.M. January 24th. Thermometer, F. 15°. 

"Here I am at the commencement of the year 1861, and 
have just read over the paper written by me this time twelve 
months. I must state that I do not consider I have made 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

sufficient improvement. Many points on which I had hoped 
to improve I have too much neglected, and the result is that, so 
far as the subjects there alluded to are concerned, I feel myself 
in much the same condition as when I wrote. Still, I must 
try again, and by more special analysis and stating of what 
I really want to effect, I think I may be able to lay by valuable 
maxims for the future. As far as my studies go, I find no 
cause for complaint. My college career during the past year 
has been abundantly successful, transcending, in fact, the ex- 
pectations of my most sanguine moments." 

There is an unconscious humour about the following entry, 
which appears in his diary for January 28t'h, 1864 : 

" It is said that the best way of attaining happiness is to 
look steadily at the worst contingency that can happen, and 
calculate on that. If this be so, I have come now to look at 
my ultimate destination — a country curacy ! " 

He wrote on March 6th, 1864 : 

"We spent a most pleasant evening at Dr. Stokes's house. 
The company was but small, but the charades were thoroughly 
enjoyed bot'h by the performers and audience. I appeared in 
various characters — first as a doctor examining Dr. Barker 
and Mr. Carter, next as a rakish divinity student, then as 
an army officer, but chiefly and most successfully as a scientific 
lecturer. Mrs. Stokes had designed some ridiculously absurd 
diagrams of diatoms, and I was asked to lecture upon them I 
I managed to make a hit, and though many good things 
occurred to me afterwards w'hich I might have brought forward, 
had I had more time for preparation, yet I managed to produce 
impromptu a fair number of strokes." 

Nor was he unmindful of his family obligations at this 
period. When in Belfast he wrote the following letter to his 
brother Charlie, who was then 14 (August 4th, 1865) : 

" You are now, I suppose, getting regularly into school life, 
and I wonder how you like it. Be sure it will be more pleasant 
after some time than you may think it at first. I am sure you 
enjoyed your visit to Longford very much. I would have liked 
to have talked it over with you, but you will not have forgotten 
it all before we meet at Christmas. I had great fun at Mr. 
Ogilvy's, riding, fishing, and playing cricket. We were beaten 
in our match with the other eleven, though we made a pretty 
good fight of it. I was very successful in swift round-hand 
bowling in both innings, taking altogether nine wickets, while 


College Days 

not a single run was made off them in the first innings, though 
one man made a few in the second. In batting I was unlucky, 
making only 8 and 3. You will, I hope, become a good cricketer. 
Be sure and write all about it, and tell what time there is for 
playing, and whether the ground is a good one. I have not 
seen a single plant down here that I did not know before, but, 
indeed, there has always been so much going on that I have not 
searched carefully for them. Yesterday Bumside and I rode 
to a mountain about seven miles off, put up our horses in a 
stable, and went up into the heath with two setters to look for 
grouse. It was beautiful to see them set a bird even 100 yards 
off, such is the wonderful keenness of their scent, but sometimes 
they set with the bird just under their nose. We saw about 
thirty or forty grouse and a few snipe ; but the shooting has 
not yet commenced. When we came back to the farmhouse for 
our horses we found a repast 'prepared consisting of about a 
stone and a half of boiled potatoes, with a proper proportion 
of milk and butter, and I can assure you we enjoyed it, and 
also our evening ride home afterwards. 

" And now I will just give you one or two words of advice, 
the value of which I saw myself in six years of boarding-school 
life. I would have told them to you before you went, but that 
I had not an opportunity of doing so. 

" 1st. Never mind anybody laughing at you for what you 
know to be right. In ten years' time you will forget that you 
were laughed at, but you will remember with joy that you acted 

"2nd. Never show yourself the least out of temper. If boys 
at cricket tell you you are out, even when you do not think so, 
yield at once, and with a smile on your face cheerfully bowl 
to them. You wall find that they will learn to respect you. 

" 3rd. In any quarrel in any play yield at once, not with 
a sulky look, but cheerfully and pleasantly. 

"4th. Never join a party of boys for the purpose of annoy- 
ing, even in the smallest matter, any other boy. 

" 5th. If any boy bullies you (I do not think it likely that 
anyone will do so, for if you mind what I have said above they 
will have too much respect for you) ; but if anyone does, do 
not call him a ' coward,' a ' dirty bully,' or kick his shins or 
'pick up stones, but if he be at all your own size, hit him in 
the eye with all your might, and you will never be bullied again. 
If he be much bigger than you, I will advise you what to do. 
Look out among the biggest and oldest boys the nicest and most 
gentleman-like and decent fellow, and go to him, even if you 
have never spoken to him before, and tell him the case quietly. 
He will advise you what to do, and be pleased at your placing 
confidence in him. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

" Remember this always, that ' Bullies are always cowards.' 

"6th. Always speak civilly to every boy. Speak as politely 
to everyone as you would to Mr. Alcock, and always (when not 
obviously absurd to do so) with a smile on your countenance. 

" 7th. Above all things, never associate with any boy who 
you know has done anything you would not like mamma or me 
to know. 

" 8th. Work hard in school hours, play hard out of them. 

"That God will help you now and ever is the prayer of 

"Your fond brother, ROB." 




WHILE he was attending lectures and classes in Trinity, my 
father continued to live with his mother at No. 3 Granby 
Row. He wrote the following account of the social life of 
Dublin at this p>eriod : 

During the years I was in Trinity College I continued to 
live with my mother, brothers, and sisters at the old house, 
No. 3 Granby Row. My father's zoological friends long re- 
mained intimate with the family. Mr. Patterson paid us frequent 
visits from Belfast, while Dr. William Henry Harvey, Pro- 
fessor of Botany in the University, was constantly at the house. 
Dr. Harvey was then engaged in the task of bringing out his 
work on the Cape flora. I remember visiting his rooms in 
college. He met me at the door with what I can hardly call 
a salutation, but at all events w^ith the remark that he couldn't 
see me, for he was busy writing out his description of three 
hundred and fifty specimens of groundsel from the Cape ! 

He frequently visited Youghal in "his younger days, and it 
was there that he first met my father. They used to stroll 
along the beautiful sea coast for which the neighbourhood of 
Youghal is famous. It was in these excursions that Harvey 
laid the foundation of that knowledge which led to the charm- 
ing volume "he published under the title of the "Seaside Book." 
Later on he secured the friendship of Sir \V. J. Hooker, and 
was then able to gratify his ambition to devote his life to the 
study of botany. The high official position he obtained at 
the Cape afforded him a certain amount of leisure to pursue 
his studies, and he finally returned to England in 1842, laden 
with botanical treasures. He was then appointed Curator of 
the Herbarium, at a time when Dr. Allman (whom I have 
mentioned elsewhere) was Professor of Botany in Trinity 
College. When Allman was made Professor of Natural 
History in Edinburgh, the Chair of Botany in Dublin was 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

given to Harvey. His love of travel for the purpose of en- 
larging his botanical knowledge was again gratified by a trip 
on which he started in 1853, spending three years in Australia, 
New Zealand, and the South Sea Islands. He died in 1866. 
As with most men of science of his time, who were already 
in a state of mental maturity, "The Origin of Species" con- 
tained doctrines too revolutionary to be readily accepted by 
him. Indeed, Harvey was so far from accepting Darwin's 
theory that he delivered an address against it, and this ad- 
dress was printed. Subsequently, however, he came round to 
Darwin's view, and did his best to call in all the copies of this 
address, which to the end of his life he sincerely regretted 
having published. But he never became a real Darwinian. 
Indeed, I don't think he ever truly grasped w'hat Darwinism 
meant. In one of his letters to Mr. Asa Gray he wrote : " A 
good deal of Darwin reads to me like an ingenious dream." 

Harvey will be, perhaps, best known to fame at the present 
day by his Phycologia Britannica, which still is, I believe, 
a standard work on British sea weeds. A very interesting life 
of him was written by my brother-in-law. Dr. John Todhunter. 
Harvey belonged to the Society of Friends, with which our 
family had, in t'hat generation, as I am glad to say they have 
in the present, many close connections and intimacies. Dr. 
Harvey, on the botanical side, and my father, on the zoological 
side, were the life and soul of natural science in Dublin. They 
founded a society called "The Dublin University Zoological 
and Botanical Association," of which there were many energetic 

Let me here mention two. First of all there was my cousin, 
J. Reay Green, a remarkable, if somewhat erratic, genius. 
He lived with us in No. 3 Granby Row for years, and I owe 
much to his intellectual conversation. He commenced his 
career in a somewhat humble way as an assistant to an apot'he- 
cary, and his first researches in zoology were made in the 
beautiful harbour at Kingstown, close to which he resided. 
He used to collect jelly fish from the steps of the pier. 
Amongst others I remember the cydippe and the beroe. He 
discovered that little was known about these creatures, and 
even while still quite a youth he identified several new 
specimens, one of which I recollect he called after Mr. Patter- 
son, Thaumantias Pattersoni. These tastes at once brought him 


Social Life in Dublin 

to the favourable notice of my father, and this fact, added to 
the kinship already mentioned, made him a very intimate friend 
of our family. Eventually he became assistant secretary to the 
Zoological Society, and he managed to push himself through 
Trinity College, Dublin. Before he was of age, there was a 
vacancy in the Professorship of Biology at Queen's College, 
Cork. To the astonishment of everyone, he was appointed to 
this important post. He brought out two books on the 
"Protozoa" and "Coelenterata." With reference to the latter 
work, he used to say with delight that he had predicted the 
existence of a certain type of star-fish, wTiich was afterwards 
actually discovered. He had an extraordinary memory and 
a wonderful power of reading up a subject. He had made 
no special study of botany before he was appointed to be pro- 
fessor at Cork, yet botany was one of the subjects on which he 
was to lecture ! So he therefore began to read it up, and 
studied with such effect — at all events so far as book knowledge 
is concerned — that he was able to perform feats that I dare say 
few expert botanists would be able to accomplish. After twenty 
years he retired on a pension, and lived for another twenty years 
the life of a recluse near London. He still read enormously in 
very miscellaneous directions. In later years his knowledge of 
Dante was at least equal to the knowledge of Bentham's 
"British Flora," which he possessed in earlier days. 

In my college days the constant intercourse with "Joe 
Green," as we used to call him, was a most fortunate and 
beneficial part of my education. My brothers and I were on 
terms of closest intimacy with him, and I am afraid it must 
be confessed that we not infrequently enjoyed a good laugh 
at the expense of our eccentric friend. But his conversation 
was always stimulating and often entertaining. Never at any 
moment was it of a commonplace description. He was also 
wise in counsel. The advice of a man may sometimes be 
valuable, although he may ignore his own practical application 
of his precepts. 

The last letter I ever had from Joe Green was written in 
such a peculiar way that I was forced to write to him (on 
October 7th, 1879) : 

" I found the pagination of your letter somewhat obscure ; 
yet such is the peculiarity of your style that your letter reads 
equally well frontways, backways, or mixed!" 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

With this letter our correspondence came to an end 1 Joe 
Green died in 1903. 

* * * * * 

Upon hearing of the death of his old friend, my father wrote 
to Mrs. Millington (February 28th, 1903) : 

"Many thanks for your letter. Yes, poor old Joe is indeed 
a break with the past! I believe it is more than thirty years 
since I saw him. I only knew his green plaid trousers by hearsay, 
for those were the days I was at school, but I have always 
understood that the pattern of the plaid was emphasised by long 
streaks of anemone juice, which oozed from the anemones (sea) 
which he used to carry about in his waistcoat pockets ! I learned 
much from Joe, and cannot hear of his death without some 
feeling. How we used to goad him in those days! He only 
lost his temper once in any very outrageous fashion, and then 
he gave poor Val a sounding box on the ear, which was not, I 
am sure, undeserved. 

" Do you remember how he dismissed his cook at Queenstown 
because she would not keep the handles of the saucepans turned 
in the same direction ? Do you remember how he entered the 
athletic field and challenged an officer to a race in Queenstown ? 
All the beauty and fashion in the south of Ireland assembled 
to see the event, and Joe appeared in green silk tights. He 
had not run twenty yards before he fell on his nose, and was 
conducted back to his dressing-room amid roars of laughter. 

" What a memory he had I I think he knew every word of 
Shakespeare, and with what effect could he quote it! When he 
was receiving an honorary degree in the Queen's University, some 
friend, seeing the flowing scarlet robes, said to him : * Halloa, Joe, 
thou wouldest "the multitudinous seas incarnadine."' * Go on,* 
was Joe Green's brilliant retort. If you remember your Macbeth 
you will recall that the next words are ' making the green one 
red.' * AVho would have thought that the words * Go on ' could 
really involve so smart an answer ? 

" In Joe's early days, as we know, he used to observe 
Nature, but zoology very soon became for him merely to be 
studied in book or on paper. His knowledge of botany was, I 
should think, unique. If he knew the difference between a daisy 
and a dandelion, when the flowers were before him, it was about 
the extent of his knowledge. But take him in book knowledge, 
and he was astonishing. I remember trying him by simply read- 
ing from Bentham the description of a plant, and Joe would 
tell me the name of it, which, considering there are about two 
thousand plants in the British flora, was an astonishing feat, 
* Macbeth, Act II, Sc. 2, ad fin. 

Social Life in Dublin 

especially so when we reflect that he did not know one plant 
from another when he saw them. 

" But he was a good intellectual friend of our youth. I often 
recall our conversations, and in the intense years of my under- 
graduate life — 1857 to 1 86 1 — Joe was a stimulating influence. 
In long walks by the hour together we would discourse on 
philosophy and science, though it was occasionally diversified 
by moments of frivolity. For instance, when passing a spot 
which I looked at a hundred times since, in the Dunsink days, 
Joe apostrophised a tree along the Tolka, near Cardiff's Bridge, 
in the inmiortal words : 

" ' Oh, tree, oh, plant, how much of rant 
Do bad men talk of thee. 
'Tis surely time, in strains divine 
To tune my melody ! ' 

"Then, too, much that I learned from Joe has been very 
serviceable to me not only in my examinations at the time, but 
ever since. What an extraordinary character he was! I have 
never seen anyone at all like him. Peace to his ashes ! " 
♦ » » * ♦ 

My father's notes continue : 

Another friend of that time was Dr. E. Percival Wright, 
who was one of the original "set" which my father gathered 
round him fifty years ago. For many years he was Professor 
of Botany in Trinity College. During^ his life Dr. Wright 
was one of my staunchest friends. 

It will be seen that my young days were passed largely in 
the company and society of those zoologists and botanists who 
liad gathered round my father. Nor can I ever be too grateful 
for this circumstance. I attended Dr. Har\-ey's lectures in 
botany when little more than a child. Certain of those lectures 
used to be given at eight o'clock in the morning, in the lovely 
Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, and nothing could be more 
delightful on a bright summer's day than a walk in the early 
hours to that exquisite spot, along the banks of the Royal Canal. 
I may mention, in passing, that it is also a place of some 
literary interest, having been frequented by Addison. It was 
here t'hat I used to listen to Dr. Harvey discourse on plants, 
illustrating his lectures from abundant specimens gathered from 
the gardens around him. David Moore was then the curator 
of the Botanic Gardens. He was an accomplished botanist, and 
an authority on the subject of mosses. His place is now filled 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

by his distinguished son, Sir Frederick Moore. Under him 
the Dublin Botanical Gardens, so beautiful by reason of their 
exquisite features, have become a dream of delight to the 
botanist and to every lover of plants. 

In my later years at college I decided to take up botany as 
one subject for my degree examination. I therefore attended 
Dr. Harvey's lectures. The knowledge which I there acquired 
has always been a source of pleasure to me. In the preface 
to his "British Flora" Bentham tells us how the subject of 
which he is treating, was to him "a lifelong source of occupa- 
tion, interest, and happiness." If I may do so respectfully, 
I would like to echo these words in my own case. My 
" Bentham " has been my constant fellow-traveller in the British 
Islands for nearly fifty years. When taking a holiday, there 
is no joy I more thoroughly appreciate than that which I 
experience on finding some plant which, as my interleaved copy 
shows, I have not previously met with.* 

And here I may mention that, in my early days, the cult 
of the fern was at its highest. Everybody had a rockery. 
Sometimes t'he rockery was situated in a very disadvantageous 
place in the heart of a town. My aunts, who then lived in 
Eccles Street, Dublin, had no garden at the back of their 
house, but they supplied the want by various devices. Every 
available window was crowded with pots, while cracked tumblers 
were used for rearing cuttings. Their cultivation of plants was 
so successful, even under these difficulties, that one of their 
impudent nephews was heard to declare that "if Aunt Mary 
planted a parasol it would soon grow into an umbrella ! " 
They, too, had their rockery. At the back of their house 
there was a dark, deep yard. In those days every house had 
a basement, happily unknown in more modern erections. In 
the depths of their basement my aunts erected a rockery with 
stones and turf. I well remember that when my father came 
to see it he was highly entertained at the idea of supposing 
that anything would grow under such conditions. He called 
it an "underground Heartichoke." But my aunts knew better, 
and the ferns did grow wonderfully well. 

It was about this time that the Killarney fern — or, to give 

it its proper name, the Trichomanes Radicans — first leaped 

into fame. Everybody was searching for it. There were, how- 

* See Chap. XI, post, ad fin. 


Social Life in Dublin 

ever, many places in Ireland besides Killarney where it could 
be found. Its cultivation became possible owing to the re- 
markable discovery of Ward, who found that by enclosure in 
a glass case ferns would flourish under conditions of climate 
and atmosphere totally foreign to those of their natural 
hnbitat. I do not remember Ward myself, but my father 
knew him, and was one of the first to make use of these fern 
cases. Personally, I never saw the TTichomanes growing 
in situ. I have looked for it often in recent years — not later, 
indeed, than last year (1908) — in County Kerry, but it was 
not to be found. It was about 1830, or perhaps earlier, that 
my father found it growing magnificently in an exquisite spot 
known as Glendyne, on the Blackwater, near Youghal. I have 
often heard "how he was seen running down the glen in the 
greatest excitement, bearing an enormous handful. This 
specimen of the Trichomanes was duly planted in a " Ward " 
case, and it flourished exceedingly. It has almost become an 
established custom for every member of our family to have a 
Ward case filled with the splendid Trichomanes. There is now 
one at the Obser\'atory at Cambridge, and my brother at 
24 Merrion Square, Dublin, is in possession of the great plant 
which formerly belonged to tlie late Robert Callwell. Mr. 
Ward himself declared that though that plant was, of course, 
growing in captivity, it was probably finer than any that 
grew wild in nature. When my Aunt Mary died a few years 
ago, the disposal of the magnificent case of Trichomanes which 
she had, was a question we had to consider. We had no 
accommodation for it, as our own case was quite large enough. 
Ultimately it was sent to the College Botanic Gardens in 
Pembroke Road, where it can now be seen. It bears an in- 
scription stating that it has lived in Dublin houses for seventy 

There was, indeed, much botanical enthusiasm in Dublin 
in those days. There was a society known as the "Natural 
History Society," and I well remember — it must have been 
about the year i860 — that tTiere was a violent controversy in 
the papers as to whether one or two species of Hymenophyllum 
were to be found in Ireland. One party declared that there 
were two species — namely, H. Wilsoni and H. Tunbridgense — 
while the opposition party would have it that there was but 
one species. A leading protagonist in this fight was the 

E 49 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

late Mr. William Andrews. He was, I think, the foremost 
champion of the two-species party. I remember hearing a 
story something to this effect. It was that, in his younger 
days, Mr. Andrews was threatened with phthisis. Indeed, it 
was more than a threat, for the doctors told him that he was 
incurable. He inquired how long he might expect to live, and 
they told 'him about three months. "And does it much matter," 
said Andrews, "what I do during these three months?" 
"Not the least," the doctors said. The days of the open-air 
treatment had not then arrived — or, rather, perhaps, I should 
say that Andrews anticipated them. "For," said he, "if it 
doesn't matter what I do, I will certainly go off to the bogs 
of Kerry and collect the specimens necessary to prove that 
I am right on the great two-species question." Off he went, 
got wet through in the bogs every day, triumphantly demon- 
strated his theory of the Hymenophyllum, and then lived for 
half a century in excellent health ! 

I have mentioned these zoological and botanical friends, but, 
as my own tastes lay for the most part in the direction of 
mathematics, I naturally enjoyed another circle of friends in 
college. Not that these latter were by any means exclusively 
mathematicians. One of the truest and kindest friends I ever 
had, and I am rejoiced to say I still have, is Dr. J. P. Mahaffy,* 
who was in a class senior to me in college. Another of my 
friends, then and now, was Mr. Madden. He subsequently re- 
presented his University in Parliament, and is now an eminent 
judge of the High Court in Ireland, and Vice-Chancellor of 
the University of Dublin. Amongst other friends of those days 
I may mention (to give them their proper titles) Lord Justice 
FitzGibbon, Lord Ashbourne, Lord Rathmore, and Sir Thomas 
Snagge, who, with others, used to assemble year by year at 
Lord Justice FitzGibbon's famous Christmas party at Howth, 
County Dublin. 

There was a very interesting Literary Society in Dublin 
which was at its prime when I was a boy. The names of 
many of its members are well-known in literature and to those 
who study antiquities. My father belonged to it, and thus, 
although a boy, I became acquainted with many persons who, 
for my father's sake, and, I would venture to hope, in some 
small degree also for my own, were uniformly kind friends to 

* Now Provost of Trinity College, Dublin. 

Social Life in Dublin 

me in after life. First let me mention, as a member of this 
society, Sir Samuel Ferguson. I knew him well, in after 
years especially, when he was President of the Royal Irish 
Academy and I had a seat on the Council of that body. 
Ferguson loved Ireland, her antiquities, and her literature, and 
was proud of everything that brought honour to her name. We 
spent many a pleasant evening at his house in North Great 
George's Street in later years. 

One of the Shakespearean evenings at Sir Samuel Fer- 
guson's I particularly remember. The day was January 19th, 
1869, and Sir Samuel himself wrote a prologue to the last three 
acts of Cymbeline, which began as follows : 

"Ye lovely ladies, and ye men of might, 
'Tis Cymbeline shall be our play to-night ; 
But since at large to read the text were long, 
Our gentle Shakespeare will forgive the wrong 
If in the fore-plot I the piece rehearse 
In lines foreshortened and shortcoming verse." 

It may perhaps be worth while recording the names of the 
Readers on this occasion : 



Dr. Stokes Lucius 

Rev. Dr. Salmon 


Professor Ball Senator . 

Mr. Alfred P. Ferguson 


Rev. R. Peruval Graves Captain 

Mr. John Clarke 

Belarius . 

Dr. Ferguson Pisanio 

Dr. Ingram 


Mr. Palmer Cornelius 

Rev. J. P. Mahaffy 


Professor Dowden Queen 

Miss Stokes 

Iachimo . 

Mr. Thomas Ferguson Imogen 

Lady . . Mrs. Mahaffy 

Miss Laura Darley 

Dr. Stokes, who is here mentioned, was the famous Dublin 
physician, known by a classical treatise on "Diseases of the 
Heart and Aorta," and to his contemporaries by his loftiness 
of thought, and by his intense interest in literature and 

Another member of this Literary Society was the late Dr. 
Petrie. He was rather before my time, and, although I re- 
member his imposing figure when discoursing on antiquarian 
subjects at the Royal Irish Academy, I never had the oppor- 
tunity of speaking to him. He was an artist and a musician, 
as well as an antiquary and man of letters. He and Stokes 
were intimate friends. I have been told that when Stokes* 
practice as a physician was at its height — his waiting-room 
being crowded with patients, each with his guinea in readiness 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

for consultation — Stokes and Petrie would sit over the fire in 
the consulting-room, chuckling and chatting for hours to- 
gether, as if there were no business in the world to attend to ! 
We were often at Stokes' house in later years. I frequently- 
had the honour of appearing with him and others in the charades 
which were got up for the benefit of a very few select friends. 
It was in his house that I delivered the first lecture I ever gave. 
When I arrived there on a certain evening, one of the ladies — 
I think it was Mrs. Mahaffy — told me that they had spent the 
day in drawing diagrams for a lecture which I was to give. 
This was the first I heard of it. As to the subject of the lecture, 
I was to make that out as best I could from the diagrams. At 
this distance of time I have forgotten what the diagrams were, 
with one exception. It was a picture of an animal with an 
unusually large supply of legs, each of these legs being 
furnished with top boots. Half the legs were designed for 
walking one way, and the other half the other. However, I 
struggled through the lecture somehow. In the next scene 
Dr. Stokes introduced himself as the Rev. Mr. Gooseberry — 
a curate with ^y^ a year and eleven children. I forget what 
my part was, but I do remember that on being introduced 
to the reverend gentleman I expressed a hope that all the little 
green gooseberries were quite well. I thus managed to raise 
a laugh in which even the actor, Dr. Stokes himself, could 
not refrain from joining ! 

I can recall names of a few other members of this Literary 
Society. There was Dr. Todd, a Senior Fellow of Trinity 
College, Dublin, and author of a Life of St. Patrick ; there was 
Dean Reeves, afterwards Bishop of Down, a most minute 
scholar and bibliophile; there was Dr. Graves, who was at one 
time Professor of Mathematics in the University of Dublin. 
Later in life he was made Bishop of Limerick. He was a skilled 
decipherer of Ogham inscriptions. With him it was my privi- 
lege to be on cordial terms until his death, at a very advanced 
age, a few years ago. 

Finally, there was Dr. Romney Robinson, who always 
visited the Society whenever his duties as astronomer at Armagh 
Observatory would permit him to come. He was a man of in- 
numerable gifts of head and heart. To Dr. Romney Robinson 
it was given to enjoy a span of literary activity greatly in excess 
of that which falls to the lot of most men. He wrote a poem 


Social Life in Dublin 

on the Battle of Trafalgar, on the day when the news of that 

victory arrived in England, and he also wrote a monograph on 
the anemometer which bears his name. The time which elapsed 
between these two works was seventy-five years, the whole 
period being one of great intellectual activity ! His genius 
was universal. Perhaps it may sometimes have been felt to 
be a little formidable. I was told by a lady who was invited 
to stay at the Observatory, Armagh, that, after breakfast 
on the first day, Dr. Robinson inquired what particular subject 
she proposed to study during her visit. The lady hesitated a 
little, and then said she really felt a great interest in the history 
of the Moguls, and that she would like to learn something 
about their dynasties. "Very good," said he. "I will get 
you the books." After a visit to the library he presently re- 
appeared with an immense armful of books. Placing them on 
the table, he said to his guest: "Now I will spend the few 
hours between this and lunch in giving you a preliminary 
survey of the subject which is to occupy your attention during 
your visit with us ! " 

To me, personally, Romney Robinson was always the 
kindest of friends. He had known me from my childhood, and 
always retained the delightful habit of addressing me, both 
when writing and speaking, by my Christian name. 

Romney Robinson was one of the men of truly encyclopaedic 
knowledge. He is, perhaps, best known to science by the 
anemometer to which I have referred. The latest scientific work 
of his life involved a series of experiments in Sir Howard Grubb's 
workshop in Dublin. An anemometer was suspended at the 
end of a long bar, which could be whirled round in a horizontal 
plane. By this means an artificial wind of known velocity could 
be produced. His life was spent in Armagh, where, to a very 
advanced age, his stately presence was a conspicuous figure 
even among the great clerical dignitaries in a town which is 
the seat of the Primate of Ireland. 

His learning was often compared with that of Whewell. 
Various stories told of the one are sometimes repeated of the 
other. Many of them, no doubt, are true of neither. Robin- 
son was a great orator, and I still recollect, though I was 
only a boy at the time, a great speech which he made on the 
occasion when the Royal Irish Academy moved its valuable 
museum from the confined and limited quarters in which it 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

had been stored, to a more spacious site elsewhere. He was 
intimately associated with Trinity College. He had, indeed, 
been a Fellow of that college, and he returned to Armagh on 
a college living, supplementing his duties there by being 
director of the Armagh Observatory. 

That observatory, I may remark, had a somewhat unusual 
history. It was founded by a former Primate, whose name 
also happened to be Robinson. This Primate had a valuable 
living in his gift. It was a good living, as such are reckoned, 
but there were no parishioners, and the Primate thought that 
he might legitimately obtain consent from the proper 
authorities, whoever they might be, to apply the emoluments 
of the living to the sustentation of an observatory for the study 
of the heavens. Thus was founded an institution which has 
left its mark on the scientific history of the last century. At 
the time of the Disestablishment of the Irish Church a clause 
affording special protection to the observatory was inserted in 
the Act, so that, although all the ordinary ecclesiastical emolu- 
ments of every kind were swept away, subject to a due pre- 
servation of the rights of existing incumbents, a special pro- 
vision was made that the Observatory of Armagh should not 
be deprived of its resources. After Dr. Robinson's death, my 
friend. Dr. J. L. E. Dreyer, who had been my chief assistant 
at Dunsink Observatory, was appointed to the vacancy, and 
has there carried on important work. To him we are indebted 
for a great catalogue of nebulas. He has also written an 
admirable life of Copernicus, and is the author of many other 

I have already stated that the Literary Society in Dublin to 
which I have referred had Romney Robinson as one of its 
most distinguished members. It has been said of him that, 
having borrowed "The Lady of the Lake" on the day when 
that poem was republished, he returned it to his friend the day 
after, saying that he did not require it any further. Lest 
admirers of Scott should draw a wrong conclusion from this 
statement, let me say the reason he returned it was that he 
could now repeat it from the first line to the last ! 

When I was an undergraduate I attended a public lecture 
delivered by Dr. Robinson in the Metropolitan Hall in Dublin. 
It was a lantern lecture on "Air," and there were many illus- 
trations and experiments. The assistant at the lantern, how- 


Social Life in Dublin 

ever, was not an adept, and when the limelight was first 
turned on to show some pictures on the screen, the light was 
miserably poor and ineffective. Those were not the days of 
high-pressure cylinders. At that time, and, indeed, for long 
afterwards, the gases were carried about in large bags. These 
were placed between boards, the gas being expelled by placing 
weights on the boards. There was one bag for oxygen and 
one for hydrogen, with pipes leading to the oxyhydrogen jet 
by which the light was produced. In the belief that there 
was not sufficient hydrogen. Dr. Robinson's assistant put more 
weights on the h|ydrogen bag. As this did not improve 
matters he put on still more weights. It was really the oxygen 
which was short, but the assistant did not discover this fact. 
As he went on increasing the pressure of the hydrogen, and 
driving more into the blowpipe than could find exit through 
the jet, the hydrogen forced the oxygen back again along its 
own tube, and a considerable quantity of hydrogen entered the 
oxygen bag. The lantern having been given up as a bad 
job, the lecturer went on to deal with other matters. Shortly 
afterwards some oxygen was wanted for an experiment. It 
was the familiar illustration of burning phosphorus in oxygen. 
A large jar of gas was drawn off from the oxygen bag above 
referred to, but instead of containing oxygen alone, it con- 
tained an explosive mixture of oxygen and hydrogen. Directly 
the phosphorus was put in, the whole thing exploded with a 
tremendous report, and bits of glass were driven all over the 
room. Fortunately, I believe no one was hurt, and afterwards 
it was realised that we had had a most lucky escape. For 
if the large bag had become ignited, as well might have been 
the case in a subsequent experiment, a great casualty in that 
crowded room could hardly have been avoided. 

During my years in college I worked very hard, and my 
attendances at social functions, or at any kind of evening 
amusement, were very infrequent. I may, however, recall 
here one or two of the occasions on which I had, so to speak, 
a night off. It was announced that Charles Dickens was to 
read in Dublin. The performance was to take place in the 
Round Room of the Rotunda. The programme was a triple 
bill, the pieces to be read being, "Boots at the Holly Tree 
Inn," "The Poor Traveller," and "Mrs. Gamp." A crowded 
audience assembled on the occasion. Great was the desire 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

to see Dickens himself, and great indeed was our astonishment 
when we did see him. Nowadays, of course, with the help of 
photographs, the features of every public character are so 
well known that there can never be much surprise felt by an 
audience when the man actually makes his appearance. But 
none of us had ever seen Dickens, and we had not the slightest 
idea what sort of man would present himself. When, how- 
ever, he actually did appear, amid a tempest of applause, the 
result was a great surprise. What we really had expected to 
see I can hardly say. But we certainly did not expect to see 
a man whom, if we met him in the streets and did not know, 
we should certainly have said was the colonel of a crack 
cavalry regiment. He looked the picture of health. Advanc- 
ing to his desk on the platform, and holding a manuscript, 
or what looked like manuscript (at which he hardly ever 
glanced), in his hand, he began his story. We were overcome 
by the pathos of "The Poor Traveller." I do not think 
there was a dry eye in the large hall when he read the great 
passages about Captain Richard Doubledick. Of the second 
piece I have no very distinct recollection, but I remember 
the climax of Mrs. Gamp, when at last she could no longer con- 
tinue the fiction of the preposterous Mrs. Harris. Dickens, 
throwing down his manuscript, said in the voice of Betsey 
Prig : "I don't believe there's no sich a person." 

Another memory of about the same period (i860) was a 
lecture of a different kind. Indeed, it was not even called 
a lecture. It was described as an "oration" by J. B. Gough, 
the famous temperance orator. I do not in the least remember 
how it was I happened to go there; I never attended a tem- 
perance lecture before, and have never attended one since, 
but Gough came to Dublin with a great reputation, and I 
suppose we went because everybody else was going. I can 
certainly say that it was the most remarkable piece of de- 
clamation I have ever listened to. For the two hours during 
which the oration lasted even Dickens himself had not a more 
spellbound audience. Gough was not cooped up behind a 
desk, with a roll of manuscript in front of him. He was down 
on the front of the platform, occasionally walking to and 
fro, and enforcing his points with the most vigorous action. 
I recollect his description of a shipwreck. He made believe 
that there was a drowning sailor close to the shore, repre- 


Social Life in Dublin 

sented for this purpose by the edge of the platform. Then he 
made as if to throw a rope to the sailor. Just before doing so 
he called out : "Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?" In so 
acting he desired to show that sectarian differences ought not 
to be allowed to impede the work of the temperance reformer. 

A certain lecture that we once attended has long been a 
joke in our family. I shall call the man who gave it "Mr. 
Banter," though that was not his real name. He has long 
since passed away; but there are doubtless connections of his 
living who would remember his name, though I am quite 
sure none of them would remember the lecture to which I 
refer. I therefore adopt the name of Banter to avoid all risk 
of giving offence. He was a middle-aged gentleman, who had 
practically idled away the first half of his life. He then took 
to working at science and various other things in a very small 
way. He had all sorts of crazes. It is said that at one time 
he had dens built in his stable in which to keep lions, but the 
domestic objections raised to his bringing lions into the 
establishment were deemed insuperable. 

He used to bestow his time with great liberality on 
scientific men in Dublin, but I am afraid the slight tinctures 
of knowledge he had obtained were of no use to himself or 
to anyone else. For slight tinctures they most assuredly were. 
At one time he wrote a pamphlet about "Armour-plated Ships," 
which were then beginning to be talked about a great deal, and, 
small though the intrinsic value of the paper was, he had copies 
of it bound in the most gorgeous manner possible. 

It was with considerable amusement and excitement that 
we heard that Mr. Banter was to give a lecture on science. I 
rather fancy he had no very clear idea himself as to what 
kind of science it was to be ; but he was clear on one point : 
it must be illustrated by experiments. He therefore went round 
the town and borrowed all sorts of scientific apparatus. He 
obtained an air-pump, a freezing machine, a coil and batteries, 
bags of oxygen and hydrogen, two Magdeburg hemispheres, 
and phosphorus, and goodness knows what else besides. 
With none of this apparatus was he familiar ; I doubt whether 
he had any idea what he was going to do with it. However, 
a good audience assembled. A clergyman, well known in 
Dublin, took the chair, and a valued old friend of ours — the 
late Dr. G. F. Shaw, afterwards a Senior Fellow of Trinity 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

College — had a seat in the front row. I rather suspect that he, 
like ourselves, had come for the purpose of having a good 

The lecture commenced by Mr. Banter reading page after 
page of the most dismal manuscript possible. To the best 
of my recollection he told us something like this : 

"Air is a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen, and the density 
of the oxygen is .027945 according to some authorities, or 
•38957 according to others; there is 29 per cent, of hydrogen 
as well as carbonic acid, of which the density is .269. Water 
is also composed of the two gases, and is a mixogen of oxygen 
and nitrogen or hydrogen — I forget which it is — and the 
densities are the same as they are in the case of the air." 

No doubt the figures I have given are altogether wrong, but 
that is by no means the least faithful part of their resemblance 
to the original. He continued to read in a monotonous tojie 
for about half an hour. His discourse is well remembered in 
our family circle by the word "mixogen," which has ever 
since been the standard expression for anything that is in 
a hopeless muddle. Dr. Shaw sat it out for about half an 
hour, and then wrote a message to the lecturer on a scrap 
of paper. If my memory serves me, the coming Senior Fellow 
of Trinity College used somewhat forcible language; but the 
purport of the message was : 

"For goodness' sake, stop this awful rubbish." 

He then asked someone to go behind the lecturer and slip 
this communication in front of him. Mr. Banter instantly 
took the gentle hint, closed his manuscript, and announced : 
"I shall now show a few experiments." What relation the 
experiments which he attempted to perform, and could not 
perform, had to the lecture, did not appear. 

In the first place he essayed to show the famous experiment 
of the Magdeburg hemispheres — how that, when the two 
hemispheres were placed together and the air exhausted from 
the interior, they could not be drawn apart. It was rather 
painful to sit and see him making his preparations, in which 
he neglected the precautions so obvious to anyone who has 
ever tried the experiment. When he had finished he declared 
that the two strongest men in the room could not pull the 
hemispheres apart. Unfortunately, they fell asunder as he 
was handing them over to the gentlemen who were to endeavour 


Social Life in Dublin 

to perform the feat of strength. But he smiled on cheerfully, 
and then tried to explode some mixed gases. He had filled 
a bladder beforehand with oxygen and hydrogen. As everyone 
knows, these gases will rapidly exude from a bladder. With- 
out having told us to take the precaution of stopping our 
ears, the lecturer lit a match, which he attached to the end 
of a long stick, so that he might apply a light to the bladder 
from a safe distance. The only result was that the bladder 
ignobly collapsed ! At last he showed something which did 
succeed. He had a dish of soapsuds, into which he pumped a 
mixture of oxygen and hydrogen. This produced a quantity 
of bubbles which certainly did explode when he applied a 
light. So pleased was he that he then and there repeated the 
operation half a dozen times. He next proceeded to show the 
weU-known experiment in which the air is exhausted from a 
cylinder by means of an air pump. If one end of the cylinder 
is closed with a piece of bladder, the atmospheric pressure 
should burst the diaphragm. Not being properly dried, the 
bladder merely sagged down instead of bursting ! He then 
proceeded to scratch it slightly with his knife to facilitate the 
bursting ; but no, even this did not produce any effect ! The 
audience were by this time in convulsions of laughter at the 
performance, and had become somewhat disorderly. A few 
of them had even crept up on the platform. While Mr. Banter 
was labouring at the pump in the hope of producing the desired 
result, a lively youth got behind him with a walking-stick and 
pushed it through the top of the bladder. This sufficed to 
make it burst, amid loud applause from the audience, w^hich 
the lecturer smilingly accepted as a slight tribute to his ex- 
perimental skill ! He then took another turn or two at blow- 
ing bubbles and exploding them. His last endeavcrur was to 
illustrate the burning of phosphorus in a jar of oxygen. Some- 
how or other the jar was upset, and the burning phosphorus 
ran out on the table. "What shall I do?" he piteously ex- 
claimed to the audience, "for I hear that nothing will extinguish 
burning phosphorus ! " By this time the audience had got 
entirely out of hand. Even Dr. Shaw, who had preserved his 
gravity as long as possible, was now in fits of laughter. A 
number of amateurs made themselves into a volunteer fire 
brigade and managed to extinguish the phosphorus. Notwith- 
standing the lecturer's entreaties to be allowed to show the 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

exploding soap bubbles again, the chairman declared that the 
lecture was over, and that the money would be returned at the 
doors. I might add th^t one of the audience, on being told 
that he could get his money back, exclaimed : " Money re- 
turned ! Why, I would pay twice the sum for such a laugh 
again ! " 

While I was an undergraduate there was a kind of evening 
amusement which afforded a great deal of pleasure. I have 
already alluded to it in speaking of Dr. Stokes — I mean the act- 
ing of charades. A great deal of trouble was often taken in 
preparing the charades, and although nothing approaching the 
dignity of a written play was attempted, yet much thought was 
given to the production, and there were many rehearsals, which 
added greatly to the fun. 

The first party of this kind which I recollect was at the 
house of Mr. Lawson, then Attorney-General for Ireland, and 
afterwards well known as one of the most distinguished judges 
who ever sat on the Irish Bench. What the word was I cannot 
remember, but I recollect one scene in it which was to repro- 
duce the syllable "ling." The curtain rose on the meeting of 
a scientific society. The President was in the chair, and the 
minutes were read describing the papers which had been com- 
municated at the previous meeting. I only recollect the titles 
of one or two of these papers. One of them was : 

"On a species of sea-urchin, so vast that its spines were 
used by the inhabitants of Ancient Samaria as substitutes 
for spires in their cathedrals." 

The next was : 

"Professor All-at-sea gave some account of a new process 
for extracting silver from toasting-forks." 

The chairman then called on a learned professor to deliver 
a lecture on the sea-serpent. Up stood the eminent Attorney- 
General, Mr. Lawson. He commenced a treatise on the subject 
of the sea-serpent, which he described to be a living fossil 
inhabiting immense depths of the earth, and occasionally 
escaping into the sea. He expatiated on this thing for about 
half an hour, and then announced that, in order to confirm his 
theory, he had at immense personal risk and expense under- 
taken a journey to the home of the sea-serpent, in the hopes of 
capturing one and bringing it alive to the lecture. These hopes 
were not realised, but he had succeeded in catching a small 


Social Life in Dublin 

one, which, in consequence of the difficulties of nourishing it 
with suitable food, had unfortunately died. He had brought 
it, however, to the meeting. He then proceeded to remove a 
cloth from the table, which discovered a long thing rolled up. 
The philosophers of the society crowded eagerly round to 
ga7e upon it. When the string by which it was bound was 
cut, it unfolded itself as the dried ling, a fish much used in 
Dublin on fast days. The professor w^s denounced as an 
impostor, and the meeting closed with loud shouts of "Ling." 

There were many other parties at the same hospitable home, 
as indeed there were many in other houses. In those days the 
dinner hour was very much earlier than it is now, five o'clock 
being the usual time. Even six was considered late. Conse- 
quently, charades, with music and a dance now and then, 
made the long evenings pass happily for the young people. 

I knew Father Healy but slightly. I often heard of his 
famous dinner parties. I remember hearing it said to some 
Englishmen who had come to Dublin that to know- and under- 
stand Ireland two things w-ere necessary — one was to hear a 
speech by Dr. Haughton, and the other was to dine with 
Father Healy. Speeches by Haughton I have heard by the 
score, but I never enjoyed one of what Lord Ashbourne called 
"those wonderful hospitable entertainments" at Father Healy's 
house. A great variety of guests used to meet at the table of this 
witty priest. Lord Ashbourne mentions that he dined at the same 
time with Prince Edward of Saxe-Weimar, Monsignor Persico, 
Archbishop Walsh, Lord Morris, Chief Baron Palles, Dr. 
Nedley and others. One servant cooked the dinner and 
brought it to table. No one could divine how the guests were 
waited on. The attendance appeared to provide itself in 
some way or other. It used to be said that on one occasion 
an officer of the Guards looked round for a servant to take 
his coat and hat when he entered the house, but the host came 
forward and said to him : " You know those footmen of mine 
all gave notice and left on the spot when they heard you were 
coming ! " Father Healy was always ready with an appropriate 
answer. Thus, when some busybody asked whether a friend 
of his w^as a good Catholic, the reply was: "No better man, 
but a child could beat him at fasting ! " 



PARSONSTOWN: 1865-1867 

AFTER my father left Trinity College, the next few years of 
k- his life were spent at Parsonstown, where he was tutor to 
Lord Rosse's sons. His experiences during this period are 
thus recorded by himself : 

I do not think it had ever occurred to me to embark upon 
an astronomical career until November 8th, 1865, when I re- 
ceived a letter from Dr. Johnstone Stoney. It conveyed the 
following message: "Would it be agreeable to you to act as 
tutor to Lord Rosse's sons at Parsonstown ? " I was by no 
means sure of my qualifications for the post. I had never paid 
much attention to classics, beyond the small minimum necessary 
to pass examinations. In those days classics were generally 
regarded as the primary part of a tutor's duties. Up to that 
time it had never at any moment entered into my thoughts 
to become a tutor or a schoolmaster. I may, parenthetically, 
remark that when Clifton College was founded, I was offered, 
through Dr. Lloyd, the Provost of Trinity College, the position 
of chief science master. 

Dr. Stoney's letter, however, presented great attractions. 
When it reached me. Lord Rosse, who had been President of 
the Royal Society, was one of the most prominent men of 
science in the kingdom. His great telescope was then, as 
indeed it still is, unrivalled in dimensions. I saw in this letter 
an opportunity for studying astronomy under the very best 
auspices. I also realised that acceptance of this post would 
enable me to become acquainted with scientific things and 
with leading men of science. In framing my reply I explained 
that my classics, to put the thing very mildly, were very shaky, 
but that I would do my best. I added that with regard to 
the other matters necessary for the education of three youths 
of ages varying from eleven to sixteen I had no grave doubts 
as to my competence, and that I would accept the post, pro- 



vided that I was allowed to use the great telescope. A favour- 
able reply was soon forthcoming, in which it was stated that 
Lord Rosse would be delighted to give me the free run of his 
Observatory. This decided my course in life, and I have never 
since regretted for a moment that I failed to become a Fellow 
of Trinity. 

I hasten to say, however, that I did not sever my connection 
with college without a considerable wrench. I was bound to 
my Alma Mater by many ties, and the acceptance of the new 
post involved separation from many excellent friends. I did 
not foresee that nine years later I was to return again to my 
dear old university — this time in the capacity of professor. 

Let me describe the scenes and conditions amongst which 
my life for the next two interesting years was to be passed. 
The residence of the Earl of Rosse is at Birr Castle, in 
King's County, about eighty miles from Dublin. Birr Castle 
is situated at the little town which was then officially known 
as "Parsonstown," but to the inhabitants as "Birr." Quite 
recently I believe the official designation has been abandoned, 
and the Post Office only recognises "Birr." Birr Castle 
is a noble building of modern erection, surrounded by a moat. 
It is situated in a beautiful park, through which two pretty 
rivers flow, and these unite in a single stream before they leave. 
The park has also a large artificial lake, ingeniously con- 
structed by Lord Rosse himself, which is the perennial home 
of innumerable wild duck. Several instances of Lord Rosse's 
consummate mechanical skill are to be found about the grounds. 
Visitors used to stand gazing in wonder on a water-wheel 
which, being turned by the waters from the lake, raised water 
from a drainage system connected with low-lying lands around. 
A suspension bridge was thrown across the river close to the 
castle. The outstanding feature of Birr Castle, by which it 
will be for ever famous in the annals of science, is the mighty 
telescope. Between the lake and the castle are two great walls, 
which are now somewhat overgrown with ivy. I have been 
told that visitors entering the gates of the park for the first 
time have driven up to these walls in the belief that they 
were approaching the castle itself, which is not visible from 
the park gates. Between these two walls there swings a tube 
sixty feet long and more than six feet in diameter — a tube 
large enough to be the funnel of a good-sized steamship. At 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

the lower end of this tube is the mighty mirror or speculum. 
Lord Rosse's telescope is what is known as a "reflecting tele- 
scope " — a reflecting telescope of the Newtonian type. The 
instrument is raised by means of a winch, which is placed 
towards the north, and the observers who are to use the 
telescope have to make their way to the galleries. It is charac- 
teristic of this type of telescope that the eye-piece is at the top 
of the tube, not, as in the refracting instruments, at the bottom. 
Four men had to be summoned to assist the observer. One 
stood at the winch to raise or lower, another at the lower end 
of the instrument to give it an eastward or westward motion, 
as directed by the astronomer, while the third had to be ready 
to move the gallery in and out, in order to keep the observer 
conveniently placed with regard to the eye-piece. It was the 
duty of the fourth to look after the lamps and attend to minor 

Lord Rosse not only designed the great instrument, but 
actually constructed it. At the back of the castle he had ex- 
tensive workshops, where a capable smith named Coghlan 
and numerous assistants carried out the work under the direc- 
tion of the Earl himself. It was he who devised methods for 
getting over the innumerable difficulties involved in casting, 
grinding, and polishing the great speculum, which weighed 
over three tons.* He had many failures before he achieved 
success; and the precepts which he laid down have been 
followed by all who have since made great reflecting telescopes. 
To illustrate the thoroughness of his methods, let me recall 
one detail which I heard from his own lips. In the final 
polishing of the mirror, rouge was the material employed. 
When he commenced operations he found that the rouge of 
commerce was not satisfactory. He therefore investigated the 
subject, and eventually discovered the way to make good 
rouge. His method was afterwards adopted in the manu- 
facture of the rouge which is used by the great silversmiths in 

When I went to Parsonstown, in 1865, Lord Rosse was 
advanced in years. He no longer took an active part in the 
work of observation, but he evinced a lively interest in all 

* Since these lines were written this great mirror has been removed from the 
telescope and placed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington. The 
work of removal and transportation involved no small difficulty owing to its weight 
and fragility. 



that went on, and was always glad to think that the telescope 
was being used. 

Lord Oxmantown, Lord Rosse's eldest son, was not one 
of my pupils. They were his three younger brothers, who are 
now the Hon. and Rev. Randal Parsons, the Hon. R. C. 
Parsons — a well-known engineer — while the youngest is the 
Hon. Sir C. A. Parsons. It has always been a great satis- 
faction to me to remember that I had the great honour of in- 
stilling the elements of algebra and Euclid into the mind of 
the famous man who has revolutionised the use of steam by 
his invention of the steam turbine. It would seem that he 
inherited his father's brilliant mechanical genius, with an 
enormous increase in its effect on the world. 

The two years I spent at Parsonstown were full of inte- 
rest. Ever since the - erection of the great telescope, Lord 
Rosse had had an astronomer in charge of it. They were 
five in number, but I only propose to mention three. The 
first of these was my friend, Dr. George Johnstone Stoney, 
whom I have already mentioned. He was in Lord Rosse's 
Observatory in the early days of the great telescope. He did 
much excellent work, and laid the foundation of a scientific 
reputation, which was greatly enhanced by his subsequent 
labours. He left Lord Rosse to become Professor of Natural 
Philosophy at Queen's College, and was subsequently ap- 
pointed to succeed my father in Dublin as secretary of the 
Queen's University. It was then that my friendship with him 
began, and it lasted until his lamented death in 191 1. Although 
he retired from every official position some time before his 
death, he devoted his well-earned leisure to strenuous labour 
in many branches of science. He often found the hours of 
the day too short for all he wanted to do. Of the many 
scientific people who work at electricity, physics, acoustics, 
spectroscopy, and microscopy, there are few who would not 
gladly acknowledge that Dr. Stoney had often been their 

It was he who began the great work of observing nebulse 
with the big telescope. Nebulse were at that time objects of 
special interest. At the beginning of the century, Sir William 
Herschel had completed his famous survey of such nebulous 
objects as were visible in the northern sky, while Sir John 
Herschel, in his expedition to the Cape of Good Hope, had 

F 65 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

completed the work which had been begun by his father. It 
was left to the Earl of Rosse to start from the point which 
these investigators had already reached. His telescope was 
much more powerful than those which the Herschels had used. 
Indeed its optical and mechanical arrangements were as perfect 
as was possible in an instrument of this description. On the 
other hand, it must be remembered that Birr Castle is not an 
ideal place for an observatory. It is near to the Bog of Allen. 
Consequently, the skies were frequently overhung with clouds, 
to the distraction of the astronomer. Even Herschel himself, 
in his observatory near Windsor, had found that not more than 
a hundred hours in the whole year were adapted for the 
purposes of the highest class of astronomical investigation. 

It was fortunate that Lord Rosse had as his associate in 
those early days one who combined in such a high degree the 
essential qualities of accuracy and scientific enthusiasm which 
were found in Dr. Stoney. Dr. Stoney was succeeded at 
Parsonstown for a short time by his brother, Mr. Bindon 
Stoney, the eminent engineer, whose great services to the Port 
of Dublin will be gratefully remembered by every citizen. The 
Rev. T. Gray, now a distinguished Senior Fellow of Trinity 
College, was there also, in the capacity of tutor, as was also 
the late Professor Purser, who was afterwards Professor of 
Mathematics in Belfast for many years. Purser had left his 
mark on the science of the time not so much by his own 
original writings — though even these are noteworthy — ^as by 
his great success as a teacher. I think my friend. Professor 
Sir Joseph Larmor, Secretary of the Royal Society, would 
gladly admit how much he owed in his early years to the 
remarkable mathematical teaching which was given in Purser's 
classes in Belfast. 

Such were a few of my predecessors at Parsonstown. I 
ought here to say that in one respect the position I occupied 
was somewhat different. For, as already explained, I was both 
tutor and astronomer. And I certainly had a busy time of it 
during the two years. The morning was spent with my pupils 
in the castle. Hours of study over, we indulged in certain 
rather strenuous forms of relaxation. Felling trees was a 
favourite amusement of Lord Rosse, and we frequently spent 
an afternoon so employed. If one desired to fish, there were 
great pike to be caught in the lake. But the large workshops 



were my chief resort during the hours of leisure. I managed to 
construct a six-inch reflector, having learnt under Lord Rosse's 
guidance the uses of the screw-cutting lathe and other metal- 
w'orking tools. Nor did my young pupils confine their energies 
to the work of the classroom. In those days there was 
a small workshop just off the library at Birr Castle. This 
was the constant resort of my youngest pupil, the Hon. Charles 
Parsons. In this little den he was always making all sorts 
of machines. I remember two of his early contrivances. 
One of them was an air cane, and the other a sounding 
machine, which he afterwards used with success in his father's 
lake. The depth of water was ascertained by measuring pres- 
sure as recorded in a barometric tube, this being, of course, 
the principle now so well known in Lord Kelvin's sounding 
machine. With the assistance of his brothers, the future in- 
ventor of the steam turbine also made a steam engine, and 
I well remember the delight they took in grinding the reflector 
of a telescope in a machine which was driven by the home-made 

I asked Lord Rosse for permission to use the telescopes for 
some private experiments on the moon which I had in con- 
templation. He warmly entered into the subject. I also got 
from him carte blanche to borrow any books from his library. 

On fine evenings I would go to the observatory as soon 
as it was dark. The observatory proper was a little building 
containing two small instruments, close under the shadow of 
the two great instruments outside. One of these w'as the great 
reflector already mentioned. The other was the "three-foot 
instrument " — that is to say, an instrument having a mirror 
three feet in diameter, the tube of the telescope being ten times 
as long as the width of the mirror. The great six-foot instru- 
ment, however, was the one which we employed for important 
observations. I shall suppose that we are ready to commence 
a night's work. The assistants above referred to are already 
at their posts. Up we climb to the lofty gallery, taking with 
us a chronometer, our observing book, various eye-pieces, and 
a lamp. The "working list," as it is called, contains a list 
of all the nebulae which we want to observe. A glance at the 
book and at the chronometer shows which of these is coming^ 
into the best position at the time. The necessary instructions 
are immediately given to the attendants. The observer, stand- 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

ing at the eye-piece, awaits the appointed moment, and the 
object comes before him. He carefully scrutinises it to see 
whether the great telescope can reveal anything which was 
not discovered by instruments of inferior capacity. A hasty 
sketch is made in order to record the distinctive features as accu- 
rately as possible. One beautiful object having been observed, 
the telescope is moved back to the meridian to be ready for 
the next vision of delight. When I first began this work, 
nothing amazed me so much as the extraordinary speed with 
which the hours passed. A look at my watch might show it 
was half-past eight. When I next drew it from my pocket, 
at what seemed no great interval of time, it would show half- 
past eleven ! On a third occasion I would find it ten minutes 
to two ! I sometimes followed Herschel's strenuous example 
and remained observing from dusk to dawn. I would have 
kept this lengthy vigil more frequently had it not been that 
the faithful and uncomplaining attendants, who could have 
but little interest in the work, were freezing gradually through 
the night. Personally I did not mind the cold.* I was young 
then ; indeed, it frequently happened that, after a dinner-party 
at the castle, I went out with a light coat over my evening 
clothes to pass the night at the telescope. I should add that 
work was occasionally interrupted by little visits to the 
castle, where, by the kindness of Lord Rosse, tea and other 
refreshments were always available. 

At the first glimmer of dawn the order would come for 
the telescope to be closed up. This operation, which took 
some little time, having been duly performed, the little party 
broke up for a well-earned repose. 

Lord Oxmantown was also an assiduous observer. Many 
a night did we spend together at the great telescope. 
Astronomy was just then beginning to quicken with new 
life under the great impulse that had been given to it by 
recent spectroscopic discoveries. A spectroscope (then regarded 
as of colossal dimensions, for it weighed about seventy 

* In later years when he was at Dunsink, he had a buffalo coat with cap and 
gaiters which baffled the cold during the night in the dome of the South Equatorial. 
He had purchased the coat, which was made of a genuine skin, in the United States. 
He used to say that future astronomers would be deprived of such comforts owing 
to the extinction of the buffalo, and that, notwithstanding the benefits he had derived 
from the coat, he regretted his small contribution towards the obliteration of this 
noble animal. 



pounds, though that itself would be nothing in comparison 
with the spectroscopes now used at the Yerkes" Observatory) had 
been built from Lord Rosse's design. By means of it we saw 
that superb spectacle, certain lines in the spectrum which an- 
nounced the gaseous character of the Nebula in Orion. With 
infinite patience Lord Rosse devoted years to making a draw- 
ing of the Great Nebula. Those were not the days of astro- 
nomical photography. That great advance only became 
possible when the dry plate w'as introduced. Lord Rosse's 
beautiful drawing was engraved on steel by Basire, and copies 
of it are now to be seen in all the principal observatories. It 
is an exquisite piece of work. It was repeatedly compared with 
the actual object in the heavens, and corrected or altered until 
accuracy was attained. In some respects we may say it is 
unique. Never before was so much pains bestowed on the draw- 
ing of a celestial object, and never again will equal pains be 
devoted to the same purpose. In an hour or two the photo- 
graphic plate will now record much more than the most ac- 
complished astronomer can observe, even though his repeated 
observations cover a period of several years. 

The visitors' book at the Parsonstown Observatory contains 
the names of many great astronomers, both native and foreign. 
Amongst them I can recall those of Dr. Romney Robinson, 
who had been intimately associated with Lord Rosse from 
the first, the late Sir George Stokes, the Astronomer Royal, 
Sir George Airy, Sir John Herschel, General Sabine, and 
many more too numerous to mention. I should add that these 
visitors had been there before my time, for by 1865, when I 
was in charge, the novelty of the great instrument had to 
some extent died away. 

I would point out that the work of observing in the manner 
above described is extremely trying and fatiguing. It should 
be remembered, however, that the nights on which the nicer 
astronomical observations can be made are few and far between. 
In the first place, all moonlight nights may be ruled out, for 
the nebulae, hard enough to see under the most favourable 
conditions, become altogether invisible when there is moonlight 
in the sky. Diligence at the telescope was, therefore, not 
incompatible with tutorial duties in the day. 

I have said that the years I spent at Parsonstown stand 
out as being of exceptional interest and importance in my life. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

I may go yet farther and say that the most remarkable scene 
I have ever witnessed took place during my sojourn there. 
Anyone who has apprehended that I was at Parsonstown 
in 1866 may at once infer that I am now alluding to the great 
shower of shooting stars. I have described this phenomenon 
at various times and in many places, but I am always glad to 
talk about it and think about it, for I wish to preserve as 
clearly as I can the impression of one of the most wonderful 
sights that can possibly be seen by mortal man. The con- 
ditions were exceptionally favourable, for on the night of 
November 13th, 1866, the weather was clear and the moon 
was nowhere to be seen. On that memorable night I had in 
mind what took place at the British Association earlier in the 
year. I had then attended a meeting of that body for the 
first time. For some years a committee of the Association 
had been diligently collecting information about luminous 
meteors and kindred phenomena. The annual reports for 
many years before and after this date are full of information 
about shooting stars, fire-balls, meteors, and meteorites. 

At one meeting some years before, Mr. Glaisher, who 
divided his interest between meteoric studies and ballooning, 
had made the startling announcement that, although he was 
not absolutely certain, there was reason to expect that on 
November 13th, 1866, there would be a notable shower of 
shooting stars. His opinion was based upon the fact that 
such showers had appeared more or less regularly at intervals 
of thirty-three years. As there had been a display in 1833, 
it was reasonable to suppose that there would be another in 
1866. He made his prediction, as I have said, with some 
reserve. It was not and could not possibly be made with the 
confidence which astronomers feel in predicting an eclipse of 
the sun or moon. Mr. Glaisher 's utterance, however, had 
often been the subject of conversation at Birr Castle, and 
when we went out to the observatory on the momentous night 
we had some expectation that the shower would appear. I 
ought to mention, in passing, that Lord Rosse's great instru- 
ment could have been of no use in the observation of a shower 
of shooting stars. Its movements were too limited and the 
field was too small. Indeed, with this instrument it was im- 
possible to see as much of the heavens as is occupied by a 
full moon. A meteoric shower can best be observed either 



"with your hands in your pockets," or with a pair of ordinary 
binoculars, which combine a moderate magnifying power with 
a very large field of view. 

On this memorable evening I had repaired, as usual, to 
carry on my work at the big telescope. I had observed one 
nebula. The attendants were occupied in winding the gallery 
back towards the wall. This operation was necessary to enable 
the telescope to be moved in order to follow an object which 
was passing from the meridian by the diurnal motion. I sud- 
denly heard a shout. Looking up, I was just in time to see 
a brilliant streak of light overhead. It was all that was left 
of the meteor which had attracted the notice of the attendant 
and had caused him to shout. Shortly afterwards another 
appeared, and though they were both brighter than the kind 
of meteor usuallv seen, we thought thev were only casual 
visitors. But presently they began to come in twos and threes. 
It was now about ten o'clock, and Lord Oxmantown had come 
over from the castle to join me in the gallery. As the shoot- 
ing stars were every minute increasing in number, we desisted 
from attempting any further work on the nebulae, and went 
up a few feet higher to the summit of one of the great meridian 
walls from which the telescope was suspended. From a height 
of sixty feet above the ground I saw a spectacle which, even 
after an interval of forty years, was the grandest I ever 
remember having seen. It was a beautifully clear winter's 
night with the canopy of heaven above us, and not a cloud to 
obstruct the vision in any direction. At first, as I have said, 
the great meteors flashed across the sky in twos and threes. 
Each of them was bright enough and sufficiently conspicuous 
to arrest attention. But when they came in dozens, in scores, 
in uncounted hundreds, and finally in myriads, the scene was 
unspeakably sublime. Not a sound was heard. It was in the 
dead silence of dark night that the heavens were scored in 
every direction by these wonderful streaks of light. As a 
rule, the duration of each was very short — perhaps it lasted a 
second or two. They were moving, as we afterwards ascer- 
tained, with a speed of approximately forty miles per second. 
Individually they were small objects — probably not so large 
as the pebbles on a gravel walk — but it was the immense 
speed at which they were hurrying along which warmed them 
and converted them into streaks of golden fire. Occasionally 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

the "streak" did not disappear immediately. In some cases 
the meteor appeared to leave a sort of phosphorescent haze 
along its track, which endured for some time. I took note 
of some streaks which lasted for a quarter of an hour or twenty 
minutes, becoming gradually twisted and deformed by air 
currents in the higher atmosphere. This went on until at last 
the material was dissipated. We were all struck by the fact 
that the meteors moved in a certain direction. They appeared 
to radiate from the east. Occasionally they swept round by 
the north, or by the south ; sometimes they streamed right 
overhead in magnificent arrows of fire; but the point of rising 
of each one of them was in the east. As the night wore on 
the eastern sky gradually ascended. In due course the con- 
stellation Leo — well known as one of the signs of the Zodiac — 
attained an altitude at which it could be clearly seen. We 
then observed that all the meteors had a special relation to 
the constellation Leo ; in fact, they started from that group. 
Closer examination revealed the fact that there was a certain 
point in that remarkable sickle-shaped arrangement of stars from 
which all the meteors appeared to radiate. This point could 
be determined quite accurately. It is this relation of the 
shooting stars to Leo which has given them the name of the 

Lord Rosse, who had come out to the observatory, 
watched this superb display with me for a couple of hours. 
In the actual vicinity of Leo itself the track of the shooting 
star was often very much foreshortened, suggesting a resem- 
blance to a comma on the surface of the heavens. Sometimes 
the meteor appeared to be end on to us, and then what we 
saw appeared like a star gradually rising to brilliance, and then 
again fading to extinction. The explanation is that all these 
objects were really moving in parallel lines, and that the 
vanishing point of the parallel lines was the constellation Leo. 
The stars that appeared to come straight towards us came 
actually from the vanishing point. There could be no better 
demonstration of the doctrine of parallel lines than the shoot- 
ing stars which we saw that night. 

Lord Rosse always went to London for the season, and 
as he took me with him I had opportunities of becoming ac- 
quainted with many distinguished men of science. On one 
occasion we paid a visit to Wheatstone, who was famous not 



only in relation to the electric telegraph, but also as the in- 
ventor of the concertina and the stereoscope. Wheatstone 
showed us the original apparatus which he had used in per- 
fecting these inventions. Amongst other curious things he 
showed us what, for want of a better phrase, I will describe 
as a negative stereoscope. If one looked at a face through 
this instrument, instead of appearing to stand out in relief, 
it appeared to be hollow — just as if one were looking into a 
mould which had been taken from the face. On another 
occasion Lord Oxmantown and I went to spend a day with 
Mr. Babbage, the inventor of the calculating machine. 

Other scientific men to whom I was introduced by Lord 
Rosse were Mr. Warren De la Rue, who had just succeeded 
in taking photographs of the moon, and Mr. J. P. Gassiot. 
In his house at Clapham Mr. Gassiot had an immense battery 
of many thousand cells, by which he could show electrical 
phenomena in exhausted tubes, which were then novelties in 
the scientific world. 

Lord Rosse also took me to see Sir William Huggins, 
K.C.B., the late President of the Royal Society. The cir- 
cumstances under which this visit was paid were of considerable 
interest, inasmuch as it occurred at a time which was to be 
memorable in the history of astronomy. Mr. Huggins, as 
he then was, had recently made his discovery of the gaseous 
composition of many nebulas. This was one of the first 
results of the application of the spectroscope to the study of 
the heavenly bodies. Let me attempt to describe the nature 
and significance of the discovery in a few words. In earlier 
days the view generally held was that nebulae — those little 
patches of light on the sky — were only clusters of stars at a 
distance so great as to render it impossible to distinguish the 
individual stars. No doubt many of the so-called star clusters 
can be thus explained; and it frequently happens that objects 
which look like nebulae when viewed through a small tele- 
scope are found to be star clusters when telescopes of great 
power are directed towards them. The spectrum of a star, 
properly so-called, has a general resemblance to the solar 
spectrum. It exhibits all the colours of the rainbow, and forms 
a brilliantly coloured streak of light. But it is well known that 
when a gaseous object is examined through a spectroscope the 
light, instead of being drawn out into a long, variously coloured 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

streak, is concentrated into one or more bright lines, with 
intervening dark spaces. 

One evening Huggins turned his spectroscope, which he 
had already wielded with such admirable effect upon the 
stars, towards one of these nebulae. He has stated that he 
himself was astonished at the result. At first he thought 
that the instrument must have become deranged, because he 
failed to find the streak of light which a star ought to show. 
Instead of a streak, he saw nothing but a line in which the 
light seemed all concentrated. Closer examination showed that 
the light coming from the nebula was entirely contained in 
two or three lines, from which, knowing the properties re- 
vealed by ordinary gases when examined by the spectroscope, 
he drew the inference that the celestial body under observation 
was of a gaseous nature. It is impossible to overestimate the 
significance of this discovery. The theory then accepted with 
regard to nebulae had taught the world that the sun and the 
planets had all been evolved from a nebula in some form. 
But this theory had theretofore been open to the objection 
that, so far as we knew, no such nebulae existed in the universe. 
The discovery made by Huggins that night silenced this 
objection for ever. It showed that gaseous nebulse were of 
common occurrence in the heavens. This was the commence- 
ment of a most remarkable series of investigations, prosecuted 
with great vigour by Huggins himself, and afterwards carried 
on by other astronomers in various parts of the world. 

I visited this renowned astronomer shortly after he had 
made his great discovery, and the occasion was made still 
more interesting by another circumstance which I shall now 
relate. Tuam, in the West of Ireland, is a place remote from 
the ordinary scientific centres, but in that town there dwelt 
a very acute observer of the skies, the late Mr. Birmingham. 
I do not think he ever used a telescope of high power. No 
doubt he had a fairly good instrument, but he had something 
else, without which the most admirable instruments are of 
little use — he had genuine interest in his subject. He also 
possessed that accuracy and care which are so necessary in 
faithfully recording observations. One evening Mr. Bir- 
mingham noticed a bright star in a place where he did not 
remember having seen any point of light before. He imme- 
diately consulted a map of the heavens. This confirmed his 



recollection. There was no star marked in the place indicated. 
He l^new that it could not be a planet, as the whereabouts of 
every planet is regularly set forth in our almanacs. They are 
always to be found in their proper places. It seemed that 
the Tuam astronomer had discovered the birth of an entirely 
new celestial object. He wTote two letters, one to the Times, 
and the other to Mr. Huggins. As he had not been heard 
of before in scientific circles, those who were first told of his 
discovery came to the conclusion that he was mistaken. It 
did not seem likely that an event of this kind should have 
passed unnoticed at recognised observ-atories by all the well- 
known astronomers, only to be detected by a comparatively 
unknown astronomer in a rather remote part of the country. 
Mr. Huggins, however, thought that there could be no harm in 
looking towards the spot in the heavens which Mr. Birming- 
ham's letter had clearly defined. There he found the star 
blazing brilliantly. He then remembered his spectroscope, 
and, turning this instrument upon the star, he made a start- 
ling discovery. I have already pointed out that the spectrum 
of an ordinary star is a long streak of light, coloured from 
one end to the other with the hues of the rainbow. In the 
spectrum of this new star, which astronomers now know as 
T Coronae, because it is in the constellation of Corona, the 
streak was not, indeed, wanting; but superimposed upon it 
there were certain brilliant lines. Even if Mr. Huggins had 
known nothing of the wonderful history of the object he was 
studying, he would have immediately pronounced it to be a 
celestial body of unusual character. He would have been led 
to this conclusion solely by his spectroscopic observations, for 
there was nothing in the appearance of the star to attract special 
attention as distinguished from other stars. Indeed, if it had 
presented any unusual appearance, it could scarcely have 
escaped the vigilance of astronomers and observers other than 
Mr. Birmingham. It was fortunate that Huggins had so far 
perfected the spectroscope as to be able to deal with the new 
object. Indeed, it could not have arrived more opportunely if 
the highest interest of science had to be served. 

His spectroscope taught Huggins that there were in the 
new star great volumes of gas. The gas consisted to a large 
extent of hydrogen, which was at the moment in a state of 
blazing incandescence. The discovery of this fact threw a flood 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

of light on the remarkable suddenness with which the star had 
appeared. It is generally thought that there had been a 
collision of two stars hurrying along through space with 
stupendous velocity. The effect of the impact was to generate 
heat sufficient to vaporise the solid constituents of both stars. 

It was shortly after these startling discoveries that I paid 
my visit to Mr. Huggins. The evening was bright and clear. 
The great astronomer lived then in Upper Tulse Hill, and 
those who say that the climate of England is unsuitable for 
delicate astronomical work should bear in mind that at least one 
great modern astronomer made some immortal discoveries in 
a sky which is often obscured by the fog and smoke of the 
great metropolis. Huggins had a dome at the back of his 
house, which contained his telescope. On the occasion of my 
visit I met Dr. Miller, the distinguished chemist, who had 
been closely associated with Huggins in his spectroscopic 
work. Miller had helped to measure the dark lines in the 
spectra of other stars, which work he had carried on with the 
utmost delicacy of skill and completeness. So admirable was 
the work as done by the astronomer and chemist in association, 
that each received the gold medal of the Astronomical Society 
for his share in the work. 

On the night we visited Mr. Huggins, Mr. Birmingham's 
new star had lost something of its pristine splendour. It had 
sunk to the sixth magnitude, and was no longer visible to 
the naked eye. But when we entered the dome we found both 
the telescope and the spectroscope turned upon it. Huggins 
first took us outside, where, by means of a pair of binoculars, 
we could see the wonderful object which had declined so much 
in lustre in the course of a few days. He then showed it to us 
through the spectroscope. The bright lines were quite un- 
mistakable, although no doubt they were fainter than they had 
formerly been. It was thus that we saw in all its grandeur 
this wonderful light which was kindled in the depths of the 
heavens. I have since seen other phenomena of a similar 
nature, but nothing can ever displace from my memory the 
evening at Tulse Hill to which I now refer. The delight of 
making the acquaintance of Mr. Huggins himself, the novelty 
of the spectroscope — that little instrument which, attached to 
the eye-piece of the telescope, is so potent an agent for analys- 
ing the wonders of the heavens — the beauty of the subject, 



and, last but not least, the reflection that this was probably 
the beginning of a new era in celestial investigations; all these 
made the visit an incident in my life never to be forgotten. 

Among the visitors at Birr I should have mentioned Dr. 
Briinnow, who was appointed Astronomer Royal of Ireland 
in succession to Sir William Rowan Hamilton, who died in 
1865. I little thought when I first met Dr. Briinnow at Parsons- 
town that I was to take his place at Dunsink a few years later. 

I will conclude what I have to say about my sojourn with 
Lord Rosse by stating that shortly after I went to the Royal 
College of Science, Lord Rosse fell into bad health, and after 
a severe operation, from which he never rallied, he died on 
October 30th, 1867. 

* * * * * 

Dr. Dreyer, of the Armagh Observatory, has been kind 
enough to supplement my father's own account of his work 
at Parsonstown with the following : 

" Ball went to Parsonstown, probably in January, 1866, to 
prepare Lord Rosse's three younger sons for Trinity College, 
Dublin, and also to observe with the great telescope. Though 
the teaching was considered his principal work, he was chiefly 
induced to accept the post (as he said in after years) by the 
prospect of studying the heavens by means of the six-foot and 
three-foot reflectors, of which the former was at that time still 
facile princeps among telescopes. Erected in 1845, it had been 
used more or less continuously since 1848 for observations of 
nebulae, the great discovery of spiral nebulae having been made 
with it, almost as soon as it was first pointed to the sky. When 
Ball began to use it in February, 1866, nearly all the large and 
interesting objects had been carefully drawn, and there was 
very little left to be done in that direction. But the micro- 
meter had been very little used, and he found there a field 
worth cultivating. As the telescope was not yet provided with 
a clock motion to counteract the earth's rotation, it had to be 
moved along by hand by a workman, while the observer took 
measures of the distance and position angle between nebulae 
near each other, or a nebula and several stars close to it. 
Obviously, measures taken in this w^ay could not be very accu- 
rate; still they might be of use in various ways, and it was 
therefore desirable to make them as carefully as possible. The 
telescope was not mounted equatorially, but w^as supported at 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

the lower end on a universal joint, with its primary axis 
directed east and west. As soon as the telescope was moved 
away from the meridian its optical axis therefore began to 
describe an arc of a great circle through the east and west 
points of the horizon, while an equatorial moves along a circle 
parallel to the equator. The zero-point of the position circle 
of the micrometer was therefore continually altering, and a 
correction ought to be applied to the angles measured. This 
had never yet been done, and as the correction depends partly 
on the distance of the telescope from the meridian, and the 
time had never been noted when the measures made by the 
earlier observers were taken, it had not been possible to apply 
the correction to them. It was an easy matter for Ball to find 
a formula by which this correction could be worked out, and 
from that time it was always applied. 

"Another improvement which Ball tried to introduce in the 
work of the observatory was the collation of the observations 
already made, with a view to finding which objects did not re- 
quire any further attention, as a great deal of time had been 
wasted for some years previous to his arrival by indiscriminate 
observing. But he did not remain long enough at Birr Castle 
to effect much in this way. 

"He was an indefatigable observer, and was remembered 
for years after his departure by the workmen who helped to 
work the telescope as the man who kept them up ' terrible late * 
at night. And yet Lord Rosse said that no matter how late 
he observed, he turned up at the castle the next morning to 
attend to his work as tutor with almost his usual punctuality. 
He lived in rooms in Cumberland Square, Parsonstown, about 
eight or ten minutes' walk from the castle and the telescope. 

" His last recorded observations were made in August, 1867, 
just before he was appointed a professor in the Royal College 
of Science, Dublin. His observations were published in 
1879-80, with the rest of the long series of observations of 
nebulae made with the great telescope from 1848 to 1878." 

» » » t « 

My father never forgot his pupils at Parsonstown. He 
retained their friendship to the end, and they frequently con- 
sulted him on scientific matters. Sir Charles Parsons wrote 
to him on October 9th, 1899 : 



" I have on hand an address to the Senior Engineers next 
month on heat engines, and should be very much obhged if 
you can tell me if I am right in taking approximately 
2,cxx),oc)0,ooo as the fraction of the sun's total heat radiated 
that is caught by the earth. Is one right in taking it as the 
ratio of the solid angle subtended at the sun to the whole 
spherical angle ? Also what depth of ice is it calculated that 
the sun's direct heat would thaw in twelve months, say in 
Egypt ? Pray excuse my ignorance, but one gets so very rusty 
when immersed in ordinary engineering surroundings." 

My father's reply is not recorded, but Sir Charles wrote 
again on October 21st: 

"It is exceedingly kind of you to write me so fully, and it 
is just what I wanted. 

" My address is on heat engines, and I wanted to show that 
with mirrors it would be quite possible (I think financially) to 
generate steam power in Egypt or the Sahara, allowing 50 per 
cent, loss to cover absorption and loss in reflection. A 13-foot 
diameter mirror ought to generate i h.p. for twelve hours a 
day on the average. I will send you a copy, if it gets printed, 
as they usually are, but possibly it may be too bad for this 
privilege. Very many thanks, and with best wishes. 

"P.S. — A 24-inch diameter short-focus mirror, as used for 
searchlights, will work a toy engine very well. 

"P. P.S. — Mr. T. Lipton has got his yacht too short and 
full-bodied for the speeds they go. They seem to design by 
rule of thumb in England — they should rely on model experi- 
ments, which would put them right." 




THAT my father did not waste the two years which he spent 
at Parsonstown is shown by the fact that, when the oppor- 
tunity offered, he was ready and wilUng to undertake work 
in a wider sphere. He was primarily a mathematician, but 
always a teacher : one of those who could really impart know- 
ledge to others; while he had also the admirable faculty so 
indispensable to the teacher of being able to inspire enthusiasm. 

An account of his activities during the seven years after 
he left Lord Rosse may be given in his own words : 

I was destined to spend only two years with Lord Rosse. 
In 1867 the Government of Ireland founded a new institution 
under the Science and Art Department. It was called "The 
Royal College of Science," and was for the purpose of pro- 
viding thorough instruction in science for those who were 
willing to undergo a three years' course. Among the officers 
to be appointed was a Professor of Applied Mathematics and 
Mechanism. During my years in college I had devoted much 
attention to theoretical mechanics, while the many pleasant 
hours I had passed in Lord Rosse's workshops had given me 
some insight into practical mechanics and mechanism. I re- 
ceived a letter from my valued friend, Dr. Haughton, in which 
he told me that he had had a hint from a well-informed source 
that, if I offered myself as a candidate for the post, and if 
Lord Rosse would support my application, I should probably 
be appointed. I suppose it was lest I should feel too exalted 
by this communication that he commenced his letter by saying : 
"I hear there is a dearth of candidates of merit for the new 
professorship in the Royal College of Science. It is worth 
;^400 a year, to increase to ^500, and better than any Queen's 
College professorship." The post of a professor presented itself 
to me as a considerable advance on my position. Lord Rosse 
wrote to support me in the kindest and strongest way, and my 


The Royal College of Science 

application was successful. It was thus that I left Parsons- 
town — not, indeed, without much regret at parting from the 
friends who had been so kind to me — ^and took up my position 
in Dublin. 

In order to stimulate public interest in the college, and to 
make it known among the citizens of Dublin, who were hardly 
aware of its existence, we announced a special course of even- 
ing lectures at a nominal rate. These lectures were addressed 
to working men. Each of the professors who participated in 
the scheme was to lecture six times on his own subject, 
the fee to be paid for the course being the large sum of 

It fell to my lot to deliver a course on mechanics. My kind 
friend, whom I have so often mentioned, Dr. Johnstone Stoney, 
called my attention to a remarkable book by Professor Willis, 
entitled "A System of Apparatus for the Use of Lecturers 
and Experimenters in Natural Philosophy." As soon as I 
became acquainted with Willis's apparatus I w^as surprised to 
find that it was not in more general use. It consisted of a 
multitude of parts — pulleys, gear wheels, etc., not mere toys 
or playthings, but actual machines or parts of machines which, 
by means of a suitable framework, could be built up into the 
most protean shapes. It was possible to fashion a model crane 
and many other machines with moving parts with this 

In giving my lectures I made use of Willis's apparatus, with 
a few home-made additions. This enabled me to illustrate my 
points by experiments on a large scale. Perhaps this apparatus 
would hardly call for mention in these reminiscences were it 
not that, as will subsequently appear, it played a somewhat 
important part in my future career.* 

♦ * ♦ » ♦ 

My brother Robert S. Ball writes as follows concerning the 
Willis apparatus : 

"My father thus laid a deep and solid foundation for the 
teaching of mechanics by systematic experiment. He often 
acknowledged his indebtedness to Mr. Willis, who devised 
the extremely ingenious apparatus with which he demonstrated 
mechanical principles at the Royal College of Science. Pro- 
fessor John Perry, D.Sc, F.R.S., in the preface to his excellent 
* See Chap. X.. p. 189^/. 
G 81 >- 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

book on applied mechanics, refers to my father's work. He 
says {inter alia) : ' Professor (now Sir Robert) Ball, at the Royal 
College of Science, Dublin, started quantitative experimental 
mechanical work. He used the well-known frame of the late 
Professor Willis, which was taken to pieces and built up in 
new forms for fresh experiments. What I have done has been 
to carry out Professor Ball's idea, using a distinct piece of 
apparatus for each fresh kind of experiment. A student 
measures things for himself; illustrates mechanical principles; 
finds the limits to which the notions of the books as to friction 
and properties of materials are correct ; learns the use of squared 
paper and the accuracy of graphical methods of calculation ; 
and, above all, really learns to think for himself.' The im- 
portant work done by Professor Perry is too well known among 
students of mechanics and engineering to require emphasis here, 
and that my father was one of the first to make use of a method 
now so admirably developed by Professor Perry and others 
shows alike his power as a teacher and a capacity for interesting 
his students. In a letter to me, dated January 7th, 1915, 
Professor Perry writes : 

" * There were teachers of mechanics before your father who 
made quantitative experiments before their pupils. I did so 
myself at Clifton College in 1871. But he developed the thing 
into a system. It was about 1871 or 1872 that my brother James 
(late County Surveyor of Galway) told me of his own experi- 
mental work under your father at Dublin, It was because it was 
systematic and not casual ; because my brother told me of how 
it caught on with students who were incapable of abstract reason- 
ing ; it was because I saw that here was a brand new thing of 
enormous value that I took it up.' " 

* ¥^ ¥^ * • 

In 1868, the second year of my life at the College of 
Science, I married. My wife had been well known to me 
since childhood. She was Frances Elizabeth Steele, daughter 
of Dr. William E. Steele, one of my father's old friends. 
Dr. Steele was at that time Registrar of the Royal Dublin 
Society; later on he became Director of the National Museum 
in Dublin, under the Science and Art Department. 

* * ttt Ht * 

I venture to interrupt his personal narrative by a letter which 
my father wrote to his mother when on his honeymoon : 


The Royal College of Science 

"Hotel Glendalough, 


" We were told that we would find a ' passable ' hotel here, 
and so we have; and I would recommend other tourists likewise 
to consider it pass(by)able and not think of seeking accommoda- 
tion in it! 

" The day is pouring wet, so we have not been able to ex- 
plore the beauties of the region. We are prettily situated on 
the margin of a fine lake, and behind us are some of the finest 
mountains in Connemara ; and if we find it possible to stay 
here for a few days, we shall do so with profit and pleasure. 

"The resources of the establishment are unique. There is 
one towel — or rather a part of one — and F. and I have be- 
spoke the first use thereof to-morrow morning. We had a little 
butter with our potatoes at dinner, and at tea a pile of toast 
appeared with a scrape of butter on the two top slices. On 
our asking for more, we w^ere apologetically informed none was 
to be had. It is the most awfully wild and unfrequented region ; 
there is not a human being to be seen — not even a priest. The 
'hotel' seems to be owned and managed by a lad of sixteen, 
with the invaluable assistance of two small boys. Tell Aunt 
Anne I hope to bring her some good roots of the Connemara 
heath, which grows plentifully all about the neighbourhood. 
F. and I both agree that the statement about a honeymoon being 
a great sell is abominably false! With dismal rain in a 
wretched hole, we have managed to put in our time to-day most 
pleasantly. She is a regular brick! " 


He proceeds : 

It was about this time that I joined the Royal Irish 
Academy, where I subsequently read several papers. I also 
busied myself as much as possible in the work of the various 
scientific societies in Dublin. I also became a member of the 
Council of the Royal Zoological Society. 

I think it was Lord Russell of Killowen who once told 
me that the ideal way to present a narrative is to adhere 
closely to the order of date. As I have now arrived at the year 
1869, I mention a lecture which I heard in the spring of that 
year which had a very material effect on my future life. It 
related to the movements of the shooting stars which had 
appeared in the great shower three years before. Dr. Stoney, 
with that originality which improved and enlightened every 
subject he touched upon, gave the lecture. He had occasion 
to explain that the shooting stars moved in an elliptic track, 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

and he illustrated his remarks by means of a heavy leaden 
ball suspended by a wire from the roof of the theatre of the 
Royal Dublin Society. When drawn aside, the ball moved in 
an ellipse, the position of which gradually altered. 

At the time I was not very familiar with the mathematical 
principles by which these movements could be explained, but 
as soon as I returned home after the lecture I commenced to 
consider the subject. I found it to be one of absorbing inter- 
est. Prolonged investigation enabled me to ascertain some 
points in connection with the movements which did not appear 
to have been published before. Eventually I wrote a paper 
which was duly published by the Royal Irish Academy. From 
this I was led on to a general examination of the movements of 
a rigid body about a fixed point. These researches gradually 
developed into a theory still xnore general, and finally became 
what is now known as the "Theory of Screws," on which I have 
written much. Indeed, the investigation of this subject has 
been one of the main occupations and certainly one of the great 
interests of my life. Even now I look forward to the summer 
holiday, because I know I shall then be able to devote some 
hours every day to uninterrupted study of this subject. 

Thus far the personal narrative. It was always a saying 
in the family that my father's idea of rest and recreation was to 
move to another place wherein to work at mathematics. What- 
ever pleasant spot was chosen for the summer holiday, a private 
sitting-room was invariably engaged where he could labour 

In particular I remember one visit to Pontresina, where 
the windows of the sitting-room in the Kronenhof gave upon 
the beautiful Roseg Valley. While the other members of the 
party were out on expeditions, my father would work and write 
and think there for four or five hours at a time — plunged in 
an intellectual world of his own the beauties of which were 
revealed to none save himself. 

The following letter to his son Robert shows that golf 
and mathematical research shared his attentions during a 
holiday : 

"We have had a good time at Buncrana. All, I think, 
enjoyed themselves ; I know I did. When I was tired of golf 
I worked at screws, and when I was tired of screws I played golf, 


The Royal College of Science 

and I really do not know which I liked the best ; both were 
delightful. I hope you will take to golf." 

When he published an edition of the "Theory of Screws," 
many years later, my father did not forget the man to whom 
he owed his inspiration. He wrote to Dr. Stoney (December 23rd, 
1889) : 

" I send you herewith a volume which gives an account of 
the Theory of Screws which is tolerably complete. Please 
accept it. 

"About twenty years ago you will recollect giving a 
lecture on Meteors at the R.D.S., in which you employed the 
pendulum to illustrate the progression of the apse. This set 
me thinking on the dynamical problem of the pendulum, thence 
of the small oscillations of a point generally, and from thence to 
a rigid body, by which I was gradually led on to the theory 
which, as you know, has occupied much of my attention for many 

" I have always felt grateful to you for thus starting me on 
a line of thought which has given me many delightful hours of 

» « « « « 

My father's narrative may now be resumed : 

Among the colleagues with whom I commenced to work at 
the Royal College of Science I should especially mention Dr. 
Ramsay Traquair, an accomplished paleontologist. Some years 
later he was appointed Director of the Natural History Museum 
of Edinburgh. 

I should also mention my lifelong friend. Sir W. Thistleton- 
Dyer, K.C.B. He was Professor of Botany at the College for 
some years, and was then promoted to be Assistant-Director of 
Kew Gardens. Later on he occupied the important position 
of Director at Kew. 

Another friend, of whom I saw a great deal in those days, 
was Professor E. Hull, F.R.S., who was Director of the 
Geological Survey in Ireland while I was at the College of 
Science. In the spring of 1880 he and I paid a delightful 
visit to the Auvergne, where we investigated the geological 
wonders of the district.* 

Sir W. F. Barrett joined the college during my time, as 

Professor of Physics. He came to Dublin with an established 

♦ An account of this expedition will be found in Professor Hull's " Reminiscences 
of a Strenuous Life " (London : Hugh Rees), at p. 89. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

reputation, having been assistant to Professor Tyndall at 
the Royal Institution; but he had already made a number of 
investigations on his own account. In particular he had 
astonished the scientific world by his beautiful discovery of 
flames which would respond to sound. I well remember the 
arresting lecture which he gave on this subject at the Royal 
Dublin Society. 

Leaving the personal narrative again for a moment, I here 
insert an account of my father's work at the College of Science 
with which Sir W. F. Barrett has kindly supplied me : 

"My acquaintance with Sir Robert Ball began forty-five 
years ago, when I was invited over to Dublin to deliver a 
lecture before the Royal Dublin Society. The Royal College 
of Science for Ireland had come into existence shortly before 
that time, and Ball held the position of Professor of Applied 
Mathematics and Mechanics in the college. When, a few 
years later, largely through his kind interest in the matter, 
I was appointed to the Chair of Experimental Physics in the 
college, we became colleagues, and the affectionate friendship 
thus begun, continued intimate and unbroken ever after, and 
remains one of my most valued possessions. 

"To the success of his teaching at the College of Science 
his old students — many of whom now hold eminent positions 
in all parts of the world — have often testified. He was, I 
believe, one of the first to introduce the C.G.S. system into 
class teaching, and a large collection of weights and measures 
and models to illustrate this system were made under his 
direction. But his work at the college will be chiefly remem- 
bered by his splendid adaptation and extension of Willis's 
apparatus for the teaching of experimental mechanics. His 
well-known volume on this subject was the outcome of his 
lectures both to the regular students and of the series of popular 
evening lectures which he inaugurated at the college. I re- 
member the ingenuity and skill with which he fitted up the 
large pieces of apparatus until the wide space behind the lecture 
table was almost full, and then the wonderful lucid and delight- 
ful expositions he gave, interspersed with his unfailing humour. 
He threw his whole heart into his work, and enjoyed his 
lectures as much as did his enthusiastic audience. In the 


The Royal College of Science 

originality and wide learning displayed in his lectures he was 
facile princeps among his colleagues. He endeared himself 
to all by the keen interest he took in the welfare of his students 
and of the college generally, so that his name must ever be 
remembered by his former colleagues and by his old students 
with the deepest affection and respect. Indeed, it would be 
hard to find a more lovable, generous, and high-minded per- 
sonality than that of my dear friend Robert Ball." 

To resume the {personal narrative : 

Amongst the friends of those days I remember Professor 
J. T. O'Reilly, who at that time filled the Chair of Mineralogy 
and Mining. In later years, long after I left, he became 
Secretary to the college. 

I also recall Sir Robert Kane, who had been a friend of 
mine since childhood. Before coming to Dublin he had been 
President of Cork College, and he then became head of the 
College of Science. 

Lastly, I must not forget my friend Dr. Sidney, who was 
Secretary, to the college in my time. 

The early days of the institution were fraught with con- 
siderable anxiety. The prospects were by no means en- 
couraging. Students were exceedingly few in number, and 
of those who did attend the majority were mainly induced 
to do so by the. fact that good scholarships were provided 
for them by the Science and Art Department. No member of 
the staff was responsible for the scheme of education. Every- 
thing of that kind had been arranged by the Commissioners, 
who had drawn up a plan for the college. Let me say at once 
that they had done their work most admirably. But their 
views were greatly in advance of the times. I am speaking 
of forty years ago. Anyone proposing to found a scientific 
college at the present day would do well to study the pro- 
posals originally made for instruction at the institution with 
which I was connected in Dublin. But the parents of those 
days were somewhat reluctant to place their sons under a 
regime which they deemed problematical. There was another 
circumstance which tended to increase this feeling of hesita- 
tion in parents. It was that the Government did not appear 
to be very sanguine of success. It was provided in the con- 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

stitution that, if at the end of seven years, the college was not 
found to be prospering, it should be abolished, in which case 
the professors were not to be entitled to claim compensation 
for loss of office. This uncertainty of tenure undoubtedly had 
a very depressing effect upon all who were interested in the 
starting of the college. It was certainly disquieting to those 
of us who had burnt our boats in accepting professorships. 
Although we were all filled with anxiety then, it may have 
been that the insecurity was a blessing in disguise. Looking 
back at this distance of time, I am not at all clear that in some 
respects the threat which was hanging over the staff was not 
advantageous. It certainly induced us to make strenuous efforts 
to make the college a success. At any rate, we did keep it on 
its legs, and now, after the lapse of forty years, it has grown 
into a strong and powerful institution. Only recently I learnt 
that it is to be transferred from the original quarters, in which 
it was somewhat cramped, to an ample and splendid building. 

His old pupils did not forget him. Thirty-one years after 
he severed his connection with the college he was entertained 
at dinner in London by a number of men who had attended 
his lectures on experimental mechanics. He describes this 
event in a letter to Mr. Charles Steele (March 24th, 1905) : 

" Even though they are so very tardy, will you please accept 
my thanks for the magazine containing the account of poor 

" It was the first intimation I had of his death. 

"I had always, like so many others, the warmest affection 
for O'Reilly. We often differed as widely as the poles in 
matters of policy in the College of Science, but that never 
interfered in the least with our personal regard. My room 
upstairs was opposite his, and whenever I had fixed up some 
mechanical experiment for my class I used always to go over 
to get O'Reilly to come and look at it, and we had many a 
pleasant chat. I was always so glad to see him on my visits to 
Dublin in later years. 

" I was entertained at dinner on St. Patrick's night by the 
old students of the college. We dined in a wonderful room in 
the Holborn Restaurant belonging to the London Piscatorial 
Society, which is decorated with the most magnificent cases of 
stuffed fishes, including everything that ever took a bait from 
a tarpon to a gudgeon. There was a party of thirty or more, 


The Royal College of Science 

and I was amazed and delighted to find how wonderfully well 
many of the old students have done. I brought down the list 
of twenty-two who signed the testimonial they gave me when 
I went to Dunsink, which I have so greatly prized ever since. 
It was very ineresting to inquire as to their welfare after 
the lapse of thirty-one years. As might be expected, two or 
three are no longer with us, and twx> or three more I could not 
trace, but all the rest appeared to be doing well, and some 
extremely well. The first, Amall, is in an important position 
in the Borough Council at Birmingham ; the second, S. Barratt, 
is now one of the directors of Rylands and Co., a gigantic 
cotton firm employing 12,000 hands. He is in a fair way to 
become a millionaire. Denis Coyle, whom I recognised at once, 
is the rector of a parish ; Cooper is Drainage Surveyor at 
Wimbledon. But I won't go through the whole alphabet. Henry 
Spunner is the last, and 1 believe he is a land agent in Ireland. 

" I always thought, and still think, that the course in the 
Royal College of Science is the best educational course in any 
college. We are beginning to find that out, and are making 
efforts to bring our colleges over here into something like the 
same efficiency. 

" The percentage of men who have done exceedingly well 
in the world from the College of Science is, I believe, quite 

"Many kind things were said of poor O'Reilly." 

It would be impossible to enumerate all the old students 
of the college who have made their mark. My father kept in 
touch with several in distant lands, among whom may be 
mentioned Mr. Richard Montfort, the distinguished chief 
engineer of the Louisville and Nashville Railway. 

After my father's death in 19 13 a number of gentlemen hold- 
ing important positions at the London Patent Office wrote to 
my mother saying that they owed their first instruction in 
mechanics to his teaching at the Royal College of Science. 




MY father prepared memoranda relating to his appointment 
and duties as Astronomer Royal of Ireland. He also 
dictated some notes of his work and experiences at Dunsink 
Observatory. The first part of this chapter consists of auto- 
biographical matter; in the latter part I have collected notes 
and correspondence which properly relate to the period between 
1874 and 1892. 

He wrote as follows : 

In the year 1874 Dr. Briinnow (to whom I shall refer again) 
resigned the post of Royal Astronomer of Ireland, and it 
devolved upon the Board of Trinity College to appoint a 

Upon this occasion my kind friend Dr. Haughton once 
more came forward. He urged me to apply. I felt that this 
was rather presumptuous on my part, and I consulted other 
friends. In particular I sought the advice of Richard Towns- 
end, the distinguished mathematician, who was to me — as 
indeed he was to so many others — one of the kindest of friends 
and counsellors. Townsend urged me to make the applica- 
tion. I summoned up my courage and did so. I still felt 
that I was somewhat audacious. However, by this time I think 
I must have made some impression on the scientific world. I 
had become a Fellow of the Royal Society. I was in corre- 
spondence with Professor Klein and other eminent mathe- 
maticians. I had also had experience at Parsonstown with 
Lord Rosse. Under his guidance I had acquired a knowledge 
of practical astronomy. 

There were several other candidates, as the post had many 
attractions, including a beautiful residence in the vicinity of 
Dublin. The Board had some hesitation in coming to a con- 
clusion. After the matter was decided, I heard that Dr. 
Briinnow had strongly urged the electors to make me his 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

successor. After one or two postponements I was appointed. 
I called the next day on the Provost, Dr. Humphrey Lloyd, 
so well known for his eminence in physical optics. Having 
received me most cordially, he said : " I am delighted to say 
that I was beaten yesterday. I did not vote for you ; I voted 
for Mr. Marth." I do not think that the candidate referred to 
— the late Mr. Marth — had any support other than that of the 
Provost, but that was great support indeed. Mr. Marth was 
an astronomer who had distinguished himself both by his 
practical observations with Mr. Lassell's great telescope and 
also by valuable theoretical calculations in relation to the 
movements of the celestial bodies. 

It was thus that in the year 1874 I found myself Astronomer 
Royal of Ireland, and Andrews Professor of Astronomy in 
the University of Dublin. Let me now give a few particulars 
as to the office which I held for eighteen years. The pro- 
fessorship was founded by Provost Andrews at the close of 
the eighteenth century. He not only endowed the Chair of 
Astronomy, but he also supplied funds for the erection of the 
observatory. The money so bequeathed was added to from 
time to time by the generosity of the Board of Trinity College. 
A site was chosen at the north of the Phoenix Park, where a 
gentle slope ascends from the little river Tolka. On the 
summit of this slope, at an altitude of three hundred feet, four 
and three-quarter miles from the Post Office in Dublin, 
Dunsink Observatory was erected. There is a magnificent 
prospect from the site. Away to the left are glimpses of the 
sea and of the city of Dublin ; in front is the Phoenix Park 
and the beautiful range of mountains which includes the Three 
Rock and Two Rock. There is an occasional peep of the 
Wicklow Mountains behind, and the range gradually declines, 
and ends away to the west in the beautiful wooded hills. 
The place lies some distance from the railway, and there are 
no trams or other facilities for reaching it. Those who built 
the observatory appear to have thought it must be necessary 
for the Astronomer Royal to keep horses and carriages; at 
any rate, a range of stables was provided which was somewhat 
out of proportion to the establishment which a man of science 
is generally able or w^illing to maintain. There was also an 
extensive garden and some fourteen acres of land. Thus the 
astronomer was able to combine small farming operations and 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

horticulture with his astronomy. It was to this abode that 
I went with my wife and three small children in the summer 
of 1874. Dr. Briinnow had most kindly remained at the 
observatory for some time, with the benevolent intention of 
giving me some assistance in the use of certain instruments 
of which I had had no experience at Parsonstown. 

Let me now give some account of my predecessors. The 
title — Royal Astronomer of Ireland — was not, and of course 
could not be, conferred by the University. They appointed 
an Andrews Professor, but by Royal Letters Patent it was 
decreed that whoever held the position of Andrews Astron- 
omer should be deemed Royal Astronomer of Ireland. The 
title still survives, though, unlike the Royal Observatories 
both of England and Scotland, the Government has no say 
whatever in the management of the institution, nor does the 
Crown provide any part of the emoluments of the Royal 
Astronomer, or make any contribution towards the upkeep of 
the establishment. The astronomer is appointed and the 
expenses of maintenance are entirely provided by Trinity 

The first illustrious name among my predecessors is that 
of Brinkley, who was a Senior Wrangler at Cambridge, where 
he belonged to Gonville and Caius College. He set himself 
with great assiduity to the work of the observatory. That 
was the time when the desire for great telescopes was beginning 
to be felt, under the influence of Ramsden, the renowned 
optician. The erection of a great telescope was determined 
upon by Ramsden and Brinkley, the Board of Trinity College 
loyally supporting them. But lengthy delays ensued. 
Ramsden had but a small staff of workmen. Other business 
interfered, and he suffered from bad health. Year after year 
went by, and the Board at each annual visitation found that 
the place for the telescope was still vacant. It is somewhat 
difficult to believe it now, but it is a fact that the great 
instrument was not ready for work until the lapse of eighteen 
years after Brinkley's appointment. He then made a gallant 
attempt — even if the attempt was not altogether successful — 
to solve one of the most difficult problems of practical 
astronomy; he sought to determine the distances of certain 
stars from the earth. Up to that time this problem, though 
often essayed, had never been solved. These distances are so 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

vast that no instrument theretofore constructed possessed the 
delicacy of adjustment necessary for success. But Brinkley 
cleared the ground for subsequent investigators, and thus 
largely contributed to the success of more recent endeavours. 
We now know that the great circle constructed by Ramsden's 
genius was hardly the proper instrument for these researches, 
but no one knew this in Brinkley's time. He had been wait- 
ing eighteen years for his instrument, and he then used it for 
another eighteen years. Although he worked at astronomy 
with such assiduity, he did not allow his studies of the heavens 
to occupy his attention to the exclusion of all other subjects. 
He was an eminent mathematician, and he was also a divine. 
In his clerical career he seems to have been as diligent and 
successful as he was in his midnight researches in the obser- 
vatory. One preferment followed another, and although he 
never appears to have had anything like parochial duties to 
discharge — which would, indeed, have been incompatible with 
his work as an astronomer — we find that he attained the dignity 
of an archdeacon. Finally, this Royal Astronomer of Ireland 
became Bishop of Cloyne. In that position he succeeded 
Berkeley ; it was fitting that the see which had been rendered 
so conspicuous by the intellectual fame of the great philoso- 
pher should now be filled by one whose scientific claims were 
universally recognised. No one possessed these claims in a 
higher degree than the illustrious Brinkley. His career as 
an astronomer having thus come to a close, the observatory 
which he had adorned for thirty-six years was again vacant. 

Shortly before Brinkley's resignation, a young student 
had appeared in Trinity College whose distinction was so 
phenomenal that, although he was quite young — hardly, indeed, 
of age — he was immediately thought of as a probable suc- 
cessor. His name was William Rowan Hamilton. Such was 
the versatility of this young man's genius, that if a vacancy 
had taken place in any Chair — Mathematics, Natural Philo- 
sophy, Moral Philosophy, or even Classics — it is certain that 
his name would have been thought of in connection with 
eacti one of those posts. The story of the wonderful youth 
of Hamilton has been completely told by his most conscientious 
biographer and lifelong friend, the late Rev. R. P. Graves. 
Many of the stories of his genius may well be deemed fabulous 
by those who have not referred to the pages of Graves's pains- 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

taking volumes. Let me recall a few of the stories of Hamil- 
ton's childhood. His early years were spent at Trim, in County 
Meath. One day his aunt, with whom he lived, took him to 
call on the rector of the parish. Little Willie Hamilton was 
then five years old. He was playing about on the floor with 
some small companions when the rector came into the room. 
Noticing this vigorous, healthy child romping about with 
screams of delight, the rector said to his aunt: "Of course 
I can hardly believe those stories that I hear of that child — 
as, for instance, that he is able to read Greek ! " The aunt 
was never anxious to make any display of the child's powers, 
and so she parried the question. But the rector returned to 
the matter, and she said, "Try him." Whereupon he took 
down a volume of Homer from a bookshelf. Seeing that it 
was in contracted writing, he said to the aunt: "Oh, well, 
this wouldn't be fair." The aunt replied: "Never mind; try 
him." The boy at once read off the Greek, contractions and 
all, perfectly ! On another occasion when the child's prowess 
was being shown, his aunt said : "Now I think Willie will be 
able to puzzle you." This he most certainly did by reading 
the Greek equally well when the book was turned upside down. 
When he was six years old, he was spending the day with 
some other child who must also have been a prodigy, though 
we don't seem to have heard much about him or her. When 
Willie came home he was observed to be crying at his supper, 
and on inquiry as to the cause, he said it was because the other 
child would insist on reading Hebrew without a point, which 
he considered to be wrong. When ten years old he used to 
translate the Epistle and the Gospel for the day on Sunday 
into Syriac, and before he was twelve years old, after express- 
ing regret that the knowledge of Syriac in Ireland was so 
lamentably behind what it ought to be, he set to work to write 
a Syriac grammar ! The grammar was actually written, and 
the proposed title-page is reproduced in Graves's book, though 
the work itself never, in fact, went to the printers. When 
William Hamilton was fourteen, a Persian Ambassador came 
to Dublin, and young Hamilton addressed to him a letter in 
Persian, eliciting from His Excellency a remark to the effect 
that he did not think anyone in Europe could have done such 
a thing ! So far his studies were mainly linguistic, but he 
varied them with other subjects. He made tremendously 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

long calculations with reference to the date of an eclipse. He 
read swiftly through the ordinary books of mathematics, 
and grappled with the very highest subjects in Laplace's 
"Mecanique Celeste." When sixteen years of age he paid a 
visit to Brinkley in order to submit to him an original essay 
on "Rays" which he had written. Even now this "Ifamilton 
System of Rays," the germs of which were the production of 
this wonderful boy of sixteen, is one of the most striking ex- 
amples of modern mathematical genius. In due course he 
entered Trinity College. He was always described as a most 
modest youth, never presuming in the least on his extraordinary 
gifts; but still, his reputation must have preceded him. It is 
said that when he called on the tutor to make the necessary 
arrangements on his entering the college, the tutor observed : 
"Well, we are proud to see you, but I really do not know 
who will be able to teach you anything in this place. This 
much, however, I will promise you, that, if at any time I 
see you losing your balance by reason of the fame that will 
accrue to you, I will most certainly reprove you as a father 

And so Hamilton entered Trinity College. All the classes 
were then arranged in order of merit. When the classical 
students were so arranged, William Rowan Hamilton was 
at the top. When the mathematical list appeared he was 
again at the head, and a line was drawn beneath his name 
to show that the rest were nowhere. There was a special 
prize given for English Verse Composition — Hamilton carried 
off the prize. In his course through college he absorbed 
knowledge at every pore, and drew around him a cluster of 
friends, many of whom were to influence his later life in a 
marked degree. Indeed, he had a wonderful power of attract- 
ing friendship, and friendship of the very worthiest kind. Mr. 
Graves's work is filled with Hamilton's correspondence in his 
later years. 

Hamilton had not yet taken his degree when Brinkley was 
appointed to the bishopric. Other candidates for the Chair 
of Astronomy were, of course, forthcoming. W^ith charac- 
teristic modesty Hamilton at first thought it would be undue 
presumption in him to stand. But friends who knew of his 
incomparable genius successfully urged him to allow his name 
to be submitted to the Board. Among the candidates was Airy, 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

who became Astronomer Royal of England. Of course, Hamil- 
ton had no practical experience of observatory work, but he 
had a mastery of what was much more difficult — he understood 
the abstruse principles of theoretical astronomy. Further, by 
his work on eclipses he had already shown himself to be an 
adept in astronomical computations. Almost all his friends — 
especially those connected with the University — were anxious 
for his election. They felt that, by giving him the first avail- 
able appointment, they would secure for the University the 
talents and renown of one who seemed destined to be among 
the greatest scientific men who ever lived. There was, how- 
ever, one man who thought that Hamilton ought not to come 
forward. That was the good bishop himself. Brinkley did not 
for a moment doubt Hamilton's competence for this — or, 
indeed, for almost any other intellectual employment — but 
Brinkley thought that his temperament was not so well adapted 
for secluded residence at the observatory as it was for asso- 
ciation with the active minds in Trinity College. Let it be 
remembered that those were the days of McCullagh and of 
Humphrey Lloyd — names writ large in the history of science. 
Brinkley also thought that Hamilton's forte lay in the exercise 
of marvellous intellectual powers, where abstract reasoning was 
concerned, rather than in the practical manipulation of instru- 
ments and the conduct of observations. Looking back now 
on Hamilton's career, we can see that the bishop was not 
quite right on this occasion. At any rate, we know this much 
for certain — that Hamilton's career at the observatory during 
a period as long as that for which Brinkley had himself been 
Astronomer Royal, was a procession of intellectual victories, 
and that, up to the last moment of his life, he continued to 
pour forth with unbounded profusion those works of immortal 
genius which have made his the greatest name in the annals 
of the University of Dublin, and one of the greatest names 
in scientific history. 

During Hamilton's time there was not very much work 
done in actual observation of the heavens. He was far better 
occupied in perfecting the invention of "Quaternions" than in 
the details of taking transits, or of carrying through elaborate 
astronomical investigations. Of course, he had an assistant — 
a Mr. Thompson — who did the routine work with such instru- 
ments as the observatory placed at his disposal. But the years 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

had rolled on, and the great eight-foot circle which in Brinkley's 
time was deemed such an advance upon astronomical instru- 
ments previously known, had become now somewhat antiquated. 
Consequently, w'hen Dr. Briinnow, who succeeded Hamilton, 
commenced his w^ork at Dunsink, he found that a complete 
renovation from top to bottom was necessary. 

When I was at Trinity Sir William's life was drawing to 
a close. We undergraduates used to see him at rare intervals. 
He was a recluse, engaged in profound original mathematical 
speculations. Mr. Graves records that he would often go into 
mathematical trances, in which he would work for hours and 
hours together, wholly oblivious of time. Indeed, he was only 
made aware of the approach of night by the fact that he had 
to light his candle. He also disregarded the usual hours for 
meals, and he hopelessly neglected the ordinary occupa- 
tions of life. Strange stories are told of the condition under 
which the house was managed during those years. He never 
destroyed a letter, and he kept copies of most of the letters 
he wrote himself. These habits were no doubt exemplary ; but 
he had not the remotest idea of any method in the presers^ation 
of his papers. In the study where he worked, books, papers, 
and letters were heaped together in indescribable confusion. 
They overflowed from the bookcases and the shelves on to 
the floor. They were not only piled in corners, but they spread 
over the room in an ever-deepening mass, until his study (as 
I was told by a nephew of the great man) presented a most 
extraordinary appearance. There was a kind of laneway from 
the door to his writing-table, on either side of which papers, 
books, letters, and mathematical manuscripts were heaped 
together to a depth of tw^o or three feet. Visits of the house- 
maid to this sanctum were rigidly interdicted. Soaring aloft 
in mathematical speculation. Sir William w^as utterly oblivious 
of the sound of the dinner-bell. When at last Nature did make 
some food necessary, a chop would be handed in on a plate 
at the door. The nephew above mentioned declared to me 
that when he visited the room he saw many of these plates, 
with the chop bones on them, thrown about on the piles of 
manuscripts ! In the summer-time he would sometimes adjourn 
to a meadow, where he would work for hours under a havcock. 
When rapt in thought he brooked no interruption. To an 
inquisitive person who inquired what mathematical problem 
H 97 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

he was engaged upon he is reported to have answered : " Oh ! 
I'm trying to multiply the N.E. by the S.W. ! " 

I only spoke to Hamilton upon two or three occasions. I 
recollect the first of these best. My father knew him slightly, 
having been treasurer of the Royal Irish Academy when 
Hamilton used to read his papers there. It must have been 
in the year 1854 or thereabouts that my father took me to 
Dunsink. I was fourteen at the time. My father had some 
overrated idea as to my mathematical attainments, and thought 
he would like me to talk to Sir William. I have not the 
slightest doubt that Hamilton thought the whole thing a great 
bore, but he was kindness itself, and we had lunch with him. 
I forget all about the lunch, and I do not even remember in 
which room it was given, although I myself have since lived 
in the house for eighteen years. But I do recollect certain ques- 
tions which Sir William put to me on the roof. This roof was 
always a favourite resort for visitors, as it commanded a superb 
view. The first question he asked me was, " What two numbers 
are there whose sum is nine and product fourteen ? " When I 
answered at once seven and two, he said, "Oh, you guessed 
that ! " He then turned to my father, and for several minutes 
talked of something mathematical which I did not understand. 
I say it with all respect, but I rather fancy my father did 
not understand it either. Sir William next asked me : "What 
is meant by the sine of an angle ? " When I replied that it 
was the ratio of the perpendicular to the hypotenuse, he at 
once exclaimed: "Ah! I like to hear that! I am so glad to 
think that the old notion of representing the sine as a line is 
being replaced by the notion of the sine of an angle as a ratio." 
This change of thought took place so long ago, that I do not 
suppose that many of those who study mathematics ever even 
knew that a sine was at one time looked upon as a linear 
magnitude, and not as a ratio or abstract number. 

I saw Sir William Rowan Hamilton two or three times 
during my undergraduate course, and I heard him read one or 
two papers at the Royal Irish Academy. I also heard him speak 
at the Philosophical Society in Trinity College. But I cannot 
truthfully say that this latter performance was very edifying. 
Some undergraduates — for there are undergraduates to whom 
even genius such as Hamilton's is not a sacred thing — had 
managed by some trickery that he should appear on the platform 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

arrayed in a junior freshman's gown ! This rather detracted 
from the dignity of the occasion. Although he never examined 
me personally, Sir William did his share of examining students 
in college. It used to amuse us, when undergraduates, to read 
in Tait's "Elements of Quaternions" that "Hamilton, in spite 
of his great originality, was one of the best examiners ever 
known." That the papers set by him were brimful of his 
abounding genius is undoubted. Indeed, the questions which 
he set, frequently had relation to the quaternions which he had 
himself invented. The problems were often altogether beyond 
the candidates. Even at the present day few examinees in any 
university would be able to make anything of his conundrums. 
His methods as examiner were sometimes remarkable. For 
instance, on one occasion a friend of mine, now a distinguished 
member of Trinity College, was the only candidate for a certain 
mathematical prize. The statutes provide that the Andrews 
Professor must conduct that particular examination. Shortly 
before the appointed time Sir William Hamilton and the soli- 
tary candidate were both approaching the examination hall 
at the same moment. Upon seeing this one victim. Sir 
William immediately inquired whether anyone else was likely 
to come forward. He was assured that there was no other 
candidate. There were still a few minutes until the hour at 
which the examination was timed to commence. Pointing to 
the chains round the square grass plot, Sir William said : 
"Let us just sit down here for a minute or two." Down they 
sat on the chains, thereby committing what was in itself a 
serious breach of college decorum. Sir William then produced 
a printed paper. My old friend the candidate was rather un- 
easy, for, to put it mildly, his knowledge of quaternions was 
of a very meagre description. Sir William then opened the 
paper and showed it to the candidate, who ventured to make 
some slight remark indicating that he had only the slenderest 
knowledge that anybody could possibly have on the subject 
of quaternions. Instantly the examiner himself began to de- 
velop the subject. He went on talking, talking, talking until 
after the clock struck. He continued talking for an hour or 
more, the candidate quietly punctuating the discourse every 
now and then with "Yes, yes." Finally, as the examinee gave 
no further indication either of his knowledge or his ignorance, 
Sir William declared that he was delighted to find that 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

quaternions had at least one faithful admirer, and that he was 
greatly pleased with the knowledge of the subject evinced by 
the candidate, and that any more formal examination would 
be obviously superfluous ! 

* * * * 1^ 

The following is an anecdote concerning Sir William 
Hamilton which my father used often to tell in his popular 
lectures : 

Hamilton was visited on one occasion by a lady who wanted 
to see some of the wonders of the heavens. It was daytime, 
and it was not easy to exhibit stars under those circumstances, 
so Sir William proceeded to show some terrestrial objects which 
would illustrate the power of the telescope. Three miles distant 
from Dunsink Observatory, in the Phoenix Park, is a well- 
known monument to the great Duke of Wellington. The monu- 
ment is an obelisk, and the names of the Duke's battles are 
engraved around it, so Sir William turned the telescope upon 
the obelisk. The lady was delighted with all she saw, and 
exclaimed that not only could she see the stones of the 
building, but she could even see the names of the battles. 
"What names can you see?" asked Sir William. "Oh," said 
the lady, '* I can see — yes, S-a-1-amanca." The astronomer was 
thunderstruck. "Madam," exclaimed he, "with your wondrous 
eyes you would solve the problem that has puzzled all the 
astronomers that have ever lived. You should be able to tell 
me what is on the other side of the moon, for Salamanca is 
written on the other side of the monument ! " 


My father's account of Dunsink then proceeds : 
I have already referred to Dr. Briinnow, who succeeded 
Sir William Hamilton as Astronomer Royal. He was a dis- 
tinguished German mathematician and astronomer, who had 
commenced his career at the Ann Arbor Observatory, in Michi- 
gan. He had married the daughter of Dr. Tappan, the Presi- 
dent of the Ann Arbor University. After leaving Ann Arbor, 
he and his wife retired to Germany. From thence Briinnow was 
summoned to Dunsink Observatory. I believe he was appointed 
on the recommendation of Professor Adams, who had men- 
tioned his name to Humphrey Lloyd, then Provost of Trinity. 
Dr. Briinnow did excellent work at Dunsink. He erected new 
telescopes, and made some remarkable observations with a 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

view to determining the distances of stars. During his stay 
of a few years he completely transformed the instruments, and 
raised the observatory from being an establishment with a very 
poor equipment to one which, for its size, was comparable with 
any other obser^-atory in the world. It has, indeed, been said 
by the late Dr. Copeland — my valued old friend who was the 
Astronomer Royal for Scotland — that in all probability the 
meridian circle, which Dr. Briinnow caused to be erected, was 
at that time the finest instrument of its class. But the attrac- 
tions of the Continent reasserted themselves. Briinnow's 
health had not been strong, and so he determined to resign 
the post at Dunsink. Upon his retirement he went to Basle, 
where he devoted himself with the utmost ardour to music. 
Music had been a passion of his life. In one of his last letters 
to me he mentioned that when a young man he had for some 
time hesitated as to whether he would allow astronomy or 
music to shape his career. 

When I became Astronomer Royal, Dr. Ralph Copeland 
was Assistant Astronomer. He was a man of very extensive 
scientific attainments. An Englishman by birth, he had spent 
some years in a German observatory. At one time he had 
joined an Arctic expedition, during which he did some excel- 
lent surveying. He was extremely skilful in all mechanical 
matters, and had a very useful practical knowledge of instru- 
ments, having had charge of Lord Rosse's telescope for some 
years. When I first went to Dunsink, Dr. Copeland was absent. 
He had obtained special permission to join the famous expe- 
dition organised by Lord Lindsay (subsequently Earl of Craw- 
ford) to Mauritius, in order to observe the Transit of Venus. 

In the course of a walk one morning through a forest in 
Mauritius he found the bushes covered with spider cocoons. 
He filled an envelope with them, and gave me a few when he 
came back. It was from these that we furnished the micrometer 
Transit Circle at Dunsink with spider lines. 

I don't know the name of the animal exactly, but it ought 
to be called Lalrodecius Micrometricus. Latrodectus is the 
most venomous genus of spiders, and we may fairly expect 
something of the kind to come from such a locality ! 

Dr. Copeland ultimately became Astronomer Royal of Scot- 
land as successor to Dr. C. Piazzi Smyth. Piazzi's father. 
Admiral Smyth, was well known as the author of a book 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

which probably did more to create lovers of practical astronomy 
than any book ever written. I allude to Smyth's "Cycle of 
Celestial Objects." He christened one of his sons after Piazzi, 
a famous Italian astronomer. I knew Piazzi Smyth well, and 
had many letters from him, which he always courteously com- 
menced by the phrase, "Dear Brother Astronomer Royal." 

Piazzi Smyth devoted himself very largely to the spectro- 
scope, while he illustrated his work so beautifully as to prove 
himself an accomplished artist. In his young days the advan- 
tage which the astronomer gains by placing his instruments on 
a high altitude was not so fully recognised as it is now. In 
this respect Piazzi was a little ahead of his time, for he made 
an expedition to Teneriffe, and having managed to erect his 
telescope on the top of the famous Peak, he realised his expec- 
tation that a great improvement of vision was to be obtained 
from such a height. In later years I sometimes visited him 
at his beautiful house in Edinburgh, when he took a great 
delight in describing the results of his spectroscopic investiga- 
tions. He was then totally deaf. Indeed, it was only possible 
to communicate with him by writing on a tablet which he 
always carried for the purpose. His flow of conversation, how- 
ever, was so inexhaustible that a visitor found few opportuni- 
ties for making use of the tablet. I remember one occasion, 
of which he was perfectly unconscious, on which our conversa- 
tion was conducted under still more difficult conditions. He 
had taken me into his laboratory to show me his spectro- 
scope. In order to produce an electric spark he made use 
of a very powerful coil. This coil made a noise which was 
absolutely deafening. Piazzi Smyth knew nothing of this, but 
it prevented me from hearing a single syllable he uttered. 

In his later years Piazzi was largely known by certain inves- 
tigations which he made in connection with the Great Pyramid. 
He devoted many months to careful and elaborate measure- 
ments of the stones, the site of the pyramid, the sarcophagus, 
and the directions of the passages in the pyramid. The results 
of his arduous labours were given to the world in three big 
tomes known as "Life and Work at the Great Pyramid." 
Whether the theories he advocated in these volumes will be 
universally accepted I do not know, but no man can gainsay 
the charm of the book. A brilliant writer, he produced a work 
which is most excellent reading from beginning to end. 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

His main thesis, so far as I can remember, was that the 
builders of the pyramid desired to record in that great building, 
in a manner that should be handed down to the remotest pos- 
terity, the knowledge of certain very important constants which 
they had ascertained. Piazzi Smyth sought to show that by 
certain multiplications of the dimensions of the sarcophagus and 
other points in the dimensions of the pyramid, and by taking 
into account certain other factors, it was possible to obtain a 
figure which corresponded to the mean density of the earth. 
He was of opinion that the ancient Egyptians, having learned 
this from revelation or by research, desired to perpetuate it 
in an enduring manner. I only mention these particulars be- 
cause of the following somewhat absurd incident in which I 
took a small part. 

I was invited to attend a lecture on Egyptology which was 
to be given by Mr. L. E. Steele at Kingstown, Co. Dublin. 
The lecturer made some allusion to Piazzi Smyth's writings, 
and I was called upon to make some remarks. I knew nothing 
of Egyptology, so I repeated a little story which I had heard 
somewhere or other a short time before. It was to the effect 
that when Piazzi was making one of his communications at 
some scientific society, one of those present got up afterwards 
and said something like this : "I think the methods introduced 
by Professor Piazzi Smyth are of the greatest interest. They 
may be extended not only to measurements of the Great 
Pyramid, but to other measurements as well. In fact, while 
the learned professor has been addressing you, I have my- 
self been making a series of measurements with a pocket 
rule. I have been measuring the dimensions of my hat. I 
find that if I divide the diameter of the hat by the precession 
of the equinoxes, add the logarithm of the depth of the hat to 
the coefficient of the aberration, and take the square root of 
the whole, I arrive at a number which is the identical age 
of Mr. Gladstone." This, or something like it, was what 
I said. Great was my horror on the following day to see 
a report (or what purported to be a report) of the meet- 
ing in the newspapers, though the only matter recorded was 
the little story which I had been guilty of telling ! For many 
days after\vards I shuddered at every postman's knock. I was 
in mortal terror lest I should find a letter from the Royal 
Observatory, Edinburgh, heaping coals of fire on my head 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

by addressing me as "Dear Brother Astronomer Royal," and 
remonstrating with me for having been instrumental in per- 
petrating a somewhat sarcastic joke on the professor's Egyptian 

Apparently the Irish newspapers did not reach Edinburgh, 
and fortunately there were no kind friends at hand to send 
him a cutting. So I never received the letter I dreaded. If 
this should meet the eye of any old friend of Piazzi Smyth, I 
hope he will forgive my share in the matter. 

I have already explained that for six years I had been a 
professor of mechanics. In that capacity I had to give many 
lectures in the College of Science, but in spite of that I man- 
aged to devote a certain amount of time to original work. But 
I felt that the time given to routine work at the college greatly 
interfered with the research which I thought I could attempt if 
I had the opportunity. So I therefore gladly welcomed the 
chance of getting into the observatory, where I would be 
largely master of my own time, and where I was only com- 
pelled to lecture upon two days a week during one term in 
the year. Of course, the idea of thus limiting the professor's 
work is that he may be able to devote more time to original 

When I reached Dunsink, I continued the investigations 
which Dr. Briinnow, my predecessor, had been making with 
a view to ascertaining the distances of the stars. This problem 
had been attacked at a much earlier date by Dr. Brinkley. 
There was at Dunsink an instrument which we knew as the 
"South Equatorial." The word "South" in this connection 
did not refer in any way to the geographical position of the 
instrument, but to the name of its donor, Sir James South, 
who died in 1867, within a week of Lord Rosse. Astronomy 
owes much to Sir James South. I think it was De Morgan 
who described him as the "Starlight (k)night." 

I do not propose to go into detail about my work. So 
far as it deserves to be placed on record it is to be found in 
the annals published by the Dunsink Observatory. 

tk * * * * 

I interrupt the personal narrative at this point to insert an 
account of my father's work at Dunsink with which Dr. Dreyer, 
of the Armagh Observatory, has kindly supplied me : 

"When Ball went to Dunsink in the summer of 1874, 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

only a few years had elapsed since the observatory had re- 
sumed its place among active astronomical institutions. Sir 
William Hamilton had devoted himself solely to pure mathe- 
matics, and published neither observations nor any other astro- 
nomical work. But his successor, Briinnow, had done some 
excellent work in determining the annual parallax of stars with 
the new refractor of eleven and three-quarter inches aperture, 
and Ball decided to continue and extend this interesting work. 
In 1874 the refractor was, however, in Mr. Grubb's hands for 
alterations, and as the newly appointed assistant, Dr. Copeland, 
was absent on a Transit of Venus expedition. Ball devoted him- 
self during his first winter at Dunsink to the newly mounted 
Transit Circle. In 1876 he took up work with the refractor with 
his usual energy. In addition to parallax work on a few selected 
stars, regularly carried on throughout the year, he broke fresh 
ground by attempting to find stars with a large parallax by 
what he called ' reconnoitring observations.' He formed an 
extensive working-list of stars, interesting on account of their 
colour or proper motion or other peculiarity. These he only 
observed a few times at intervals of six months, and if the 
observations of a star agreed well inter se he did not attend any 
further to that star. But in a few cases where the observations 
differed a little in the way they ought to differ — if the star were 
within a measurable distance from us — he observed, it regu- 
larly, and as often as possible, throughout a year, in order to 
determine the actual amount of the parallax. Though he did 
not succeed in finding any star with a large parallax in this 
way, the experiment was an interesting one, and even the 
negative result, showing that stars with a large parallax must 
be very few in number, was of value. For some years he 
worked very hard at these parallax observations, generally con- 
tinuing work till between two and three o'clock in the morning. 
The reduction of the observations and their preparation for 
the printer were planned and arranged with the utmost care, 
so as to avoid all unnecessary copying and reduce the arith- 
metical work as much as possible. The observations were 
entered at the telescope into ' duplicate order books ' with 
detachable leaves, which could be removed, sorted according 
to the object observed, and sent straight to the printer. All 
calculations were made on printed forms, and every auxiliary 
quantity that could be tabulated beforehand was entered in 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

tables pasted singly on cardboard, and therefore more con- 
venient to use than tables written in a book. Having arranged 
the computations in this thoroughly practical manner, it was 
easy for him, when, after the first couple of years, other work 
claimed more of his working hours during the day, to send 
the observations to a computer at a distance to have the results 
worked out. He was very enthusiastic about this parallax work 
for some years before trouble with his eyesight obliged him 
to give it up. Thus, when he was staying at Greystones during 
August and September, 1879, with his family, he hurried up 
to Dublin and out to Dunsink whenever a very promising, clear 
evening occurred, in order not to spoil the parallax observa- 
tions by leaving a gap of two months." 

* * * ¥lt * 

Sir Robert's Dunsink narrative proceeds : 

The South dome stood on the lawn, about seventy yards 
from the door of the dwelling-house. It was in this building 
that I spent my nights when the sky was clear during the early 
years of my residence at Dunsink. The telescope was about 
eighteen feet long ; the dome, which weighed six tons, was 
twenty-four feet in diameter. Inside the dome there was a 
moving shutter which had to be opened when the night's work 
was commenced. The dome, which was supported on wheels, 
could be easily made to revolve by mechanism on the inside, so 
as to bring the opening towards that part of the heavens where 
observations were to be made. My assistant had charge of the 
Meridian Circle, which was in a different place. It was in what 
was known as the Meridian Room, attached to the main build- 
ing. It was my practice to work the South Equatorial entirely 
alone. I had no assistant to pull the dome round for me or 
to open the shutter. The fact is, that though sometimes the 
mechanical labour necessary was often considerable, it was not 
without its advantages. During the long stretches of moonless 
nights, when the temperature inside the dome was no higher 
than the outside — for there must be no heating apparatus in 
an astronomical observatory — it was often an advantage to have 
to move about a little to keep the circulation going. I have 
often been thankful that it was not my lot to practise astronomy 
in the United States. Writing to me from the Yerkes Obser- 
vatory on April 17th, 1899, my friend. Professor Barnard, 
said : " It was below zero many nights of the winter, and for 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

several nights it was about 30° (F) below. I once worked all 
night when it was 26° below in the big dome." 

Occasionally I would repair to the house to enjoy a cup of 
coffee prepared for me by loving hands. Sometimes I would 
pay a visit to the assistant at the Meridian Circle, or he would 
come and see me as the night advanced.* At first the long 
and lonely night watches in the dome were weird and uncanny, 
but this feeling gradually wore off. From the real dangers 
of my occupation in the South Equatorial I was preserved by 
some admirable advice given to me by Dr. Copeland — a man 
always fertile in resource. When I first proposed to undertake 
these solitary midnight vigils, he brought me over to the dome, 
and told me to try and foresee what accident might possibly 
happen at a time when I should be cut off from all chance of 
help, for there was no practical means of communicating with 
the house. He gave me several hints. I remember him saying, 
"In getting up on this step-ladder to wind this clock you 
have to put your arm inside here. If you slipped off the ladder 
while in that position your arm would be broken, and you 
W'ould have no way of releasing it." We therefore arranged 
precisely how the step-ladder should be placed. One or two 
other precautions obviated dangers of a similar kind. 

The machinery for raising the shutter, which was placed at 
a considerable height from the floor, was actuated by an endless 
rope passing over a heavy pinion. Dr. Copeland said : "That 
pinion is keyed on to the shaft, and on the shaft, of course, 
it ought to stay. But sometimes keys drop out, or get loose, 
when machinery is not properly overhauled, and if that 
happens the pinion will come down ; and if you are standing 
beneath it, there will be an end of you." We therefore settled 
the exact position in which it was safe to stand when raising 
the shutter. I duly acquired the habit of standing in the right 
place, and during the eighteen years I was at Dunsink, 
although I raised that shutter hundreds of times, nothing ever 

* Dr. Dreyer remembers these 'visits. On December 8th, 1913, he wrote to 
me : " I often think of the long chats I used to have with your father in the middle 
of the night when I looked into the dome on my way home. I often remained 
for half an hour, standing in the centre of the floor, while he sat on the obser\ing 
ladder measuring stars for parallax. He was indeed a man whose interests were 
not confined in a narrow groove, but who had read and thought about a multi- 
tude of things. I have met very few people whose conversation I have enjoyed 
so much." — Ed. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

happened. But Dr. Copeland's prediction came true. When 
I was using the South Equatorial — almost for the last time; it 
was just before I made the move to Cambridge in 1892 — I 
was proceeding to close the dome, when the pinion fell with an 
awful crash. But it did not fall on my head. Fortunately 
for me I was standing where I always stood, not under the 
pinion, but in the place that Copeland and I had agreed upon 
some eighteen years before. 

I often heard the hoot of the owl as he flitted round the 
observatory where I was working at the dead of night. I 
sometimes fancied that if only I could get that bird of wisdom 
to sit down beside me and put that wonderful eye of his to 
the great telescope, and tell me what he saw, I should have 
known all about the "Invisible Stars." Unhappily, owls don't 
care about the heavenly bodies ; they only use those marvellous 
eyes of theirs for looking after "rats and mice, and such small 

A somewhat ludicrous incident which occurred during 
one of my lonely nights in the South Equatorial may be here 
described. It was in May, 1880. The night was very fine. 
The hours slipped away as rapidly as they were wont to do 
when I was engaged in the fascinating work of attempting to 
penetrate the wonderful depths of space. Not a sound from 
any human being had been heard for hours. About two o'clock 
in the morning the stillness was broken by a most terrific uproar. 
It came not from the fields around me ; it seemed to come from 
under the dome in which I was working. It did not need 
much imagination at that hour of the morning and in my 
condition of absolute loneliness to make the incident somewhat 
alarming. I must confess I was terribly frightened. The din 
was such that it seemed as if a number of furies were hurling 
bricks at each other across the entire space under the floor. 
I felt, I must admit, very much inclined to bolt from the dome ; 
but upon second thoughts I came to the conclusion that nothing 
would ever induce me to work there for another night unless 
I penetrated the mystery. The noise having ceased, I con- 
tinued my work for another couple of hours. Having heard 
nothing more, I then closed up the dome and went across to 
the house. On the following day I procured a few tools with 
which to raise one of the floorboards in order to ascertain the 
cause of the disturbance. After a little investigation I found 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

out what had happened. The pier in the centre of the build- 
ing, which supported the telescope, was founded on the rock, 
and a hole had been excavated to secure the necessary founda- 
tion. The floor was built with joists, in the usual way. It ap- 
peared that Dr. Briinnow, my predecessor, had suffered much 
from cold feet in his midnight watches. He seems to have 
thought that this was largely due to the draughts of cold air 
which came from outside and found their way through the 
interstices of the boards. Whether this was the reason or not, 
he had had a sort of ceiling made at the lower side of the 
joists. This ceiling had been covered over in the usual way 
with lath and plaster. In the course of years the joists had 
gradually become decayed, with the result that the attachment 
of the ceiling was weakened. It then occurred to me that on 
the afternoon of the day before this alarming incident took 
place, a large party of visitors — numbering, I think, sixty in 
all — came to visit the observatory. They were all in the 
dome together. No doubt their weight upon the floor had 
added to the strain of the ceiling on the joists. Why the 
ceiling did not immediately subside I do not know, but the 
ceremony appears to have been reserved for my special benefit 
at a time when it was well calculated to break the most iron 
nerves. Fortunately, the instrument was uninjured. A new 
floor had to be put in, but the airproof ceiling was omitted. 
« « « » « 

My father thus described the Transit of Venus in one of 
his lectures : 

"The last Transit of Venus took place while I was at Dun- 
sink, in the year 1882. To the end of my life I hope to treasure 
with peculiar interest the recollection of that beautiful spectacle. 
The transit had been timed to occur at 3 p.m. on the afternoon 
of December 6th, 1882. I need hardly say that at that hour 
on a winter's day the sun was very near setting, and of course 
it could be only a bare chance that the sky would be sufficiently 
clear to enable the phenomenon to be observed. On the pre- 
vious day I went through, so to speak, a full-dress rehearsal 
by pointing the telescope to the sun and following it down 
to the position in which it would be, at the time of the transit 
on the following day. I then discovered, to my vexation, that 
the sun, on the eventful evening, would set directly behind a 
tree. It was plain that if the tree were allowed to remain 
standing, the Transit of Venus could not be observed from Dun- 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

sink Observatory. The tree was not under my control ; it stood 
in a field belonging to Mr. Rathborne, a dear old friend and 
neighbour of mine. I knew that to do a kindness to me would 
be a pleasure to him, so I sent a note down to ask whether 
he intended to allow his tree to stand between the Observatory 
and the Transit of Venus. He asked me first whether I could 
not arrange for the transit to happen in some other place. I 
wrote again to say that even the Astronomer Royal himself 
could not manage that much. His answer was then a charac- 
teristic one. He sent out his men and levelled the obnoxious 
tree forthwith. 

"On the eventful morning the ground was white with snow. 
The snow continued to fall all the forenoon, and there seemed 
but little prospect that the sun would be visible at the re- 
quired time. But I got everything in readiness, and the tele- 
scope was pointed to the sun — or, rather, I ought to say to 
the spot in the heavens where we knew the sun was, for the 
sun itself could not be seen through the thick clouds. The 
critical moment arrived when we knew that Venus must have 
touched the sun. Not a glimpse had been seen, nor was it 
likely that we should see anything. But just as I had begun 
to despair, an almost miraculous improvement took place in 
the weather. The sky lightened, the sun burst forth behind 
that very place where the tree had stood the day before, and 
then, to my delight, I beheld the globe of the planet Venus 
standing out on the solar disc. The beauty of the scene, the 
knowledge of its rarity, and the interesting associations con- 
nected with this Transit of Venus, impressed me deeply. But 
presently the sky became overcast, the snow came on again, 
and the phenomenon drew to a close — a phenomenon which 
will never be witnessed again by any human eye until the 
flowers are blooming in June of the year 2004." 

It was the practice of the Board of Trinity College to visit 
the observatory once a year. They inspected the buildings 
and the instruments, and received the annual report of the 
professor. Their proceedings were recorded in the Observatory 
Book. I often had intended to make a copy of this book. It 
contained much that was interesting and much that was amus- 
ing. In particular it contained the history of two clocks, which, 
at a much later date, I ventured to relate to the graduates of 
Trinity College who were assembled at a dinner in London. 
It was shortly after the opening of the Graduates Memorial 
building in Trinity College. I was endeavouring to point 
out that in Ireland things were generally done in a leisurely 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

manner, and the following is a note of what I am reported 
to have said on this occasion : 

"It was in 1793 that the Board recorded in the minutes their 
resolve to have two observatory clocks sent to Crosthwaite, an 
eminent Dublin clockmaker, for repairs. I cannot follow their 
history in all its details, 'not through each devious path, each 
changeful year of existence.' I must rather strive to give 
pictures from time to time of the thoroughness of the way in 
which Crosthwaite undertook his work, and of the splendid 
resolution with which the Board of the period dealt with the 
successive exigencies as they arose. The clocks were sent in 
1793. After seven years, in 1800, I find that Crosthwaite was 
asked whether they were ready. It is quite obvious that the 
Board of 1800 must have contained some impatient and in- 
considerate member who had urged this precipitate action ! 
That it was wholly unreasonable to expect the clocks to be 
repaired in so short a time as seven years was clearly proved 
by the fact that even four years later — in 1804 — we find that 
they were still in Crosthwaite's hands. In 1806, the clocks 
not having been yet returned, the Board, in their wisdom, felt 
that the moment for decisive action had at last arrived. They 
went so far as to instruct the Bursar to call upon Crosthwaite. 
This determination, inexorably carried out, was attended with 
the most gratifying success — so much so that when the Board 
met at the Observatory one year later — in 1807 — the report 
of the Royal Astronomer conveyed the welcome assurance tnat 
he had no doubt whatever that the clocks would be speedily 
returned. Eight years later — in 1815 — one of the clocks was 
still in the hands of Crosthwaite, this most careful clockmaker, 
and so it was in 1816 ! That, I greatly regret to say, is the 
last record we have of these interesting timepieces. Astron- 
omers are, however, accustomed to deal with such vast periods 
in their calculations that even the time taken to repair a clock 
seems but small in comparison ! " 

It was while I was at Dunsink that I first became acquainted 
with royalty. I have twice had the honour of being in the 
company of the late Dom Pedro II., the Emperor of Brazil. 
On the first occasion the British Association were holding a 
meeting in Edinburgh. One evening a large number of the 
members were present at a reception given by Sir Wyville 
Thompson, whose name will ever be remembered as the natu- 
ralist in charge of the famous Challenger Expedition. The 
party at Sir Wyville's was in full swing, when the butler came 
into the room with a face expressing much consternation. He 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

called Sir Wyville out and said that a real Emperor, with 
two or three attendants, had suddenly presented himself at 
the door and demanded admission. Those who recollect the 
extraordinary rapidity of Dom Pedro's movements, and the 
unexpected way in which he suddenly turned up at all sorts 
of places, will not be surprised at this incident. Sir Wyville 
hurried down, and was immediately addressed by the Emperor, 
who spoke in French. His Majesty announced that he had 
come to spend a few hours in Edinburgh, and that he desired 
to see something of the British Association. He then said : 
"On my arrival in Edinburgh I made inquiries as to where 
the leading men of science attending the meeting were to be 
found at that particular moment. Having been told they were 
at Sir Wyville Thompson's, I at once said that I had heard of 
Sir Wyville's reputation as a zoologist, and that I would like 
to make his acquaintance at that very moment; and so here 
I am." He was duly ushered into the drawing-room. A few 
of the more illustrious people present, of whom I was not one, 
were introduced to him. He stayed about half an hour, and 
then departed in a great hurry, saying that he had to visit 
two or three other places before he considered his evening 

The date of my next meeting with Dom Pedro was in 1876, 
about the time when Mr. — now Sir Howard — Grubb was con- 
structing an equatorial for Vienna. The object-glass of this 
instrument was over two feet in diameter. To make such a 
large telescope is no light undertaking even at the present day, 
but at the date of which I am speaking it was almost unique. 
At the time the object-glass was almost finished, and the instru- 
ment generally was in a very forward condition. Astronomy 
was one of a thousand subjects in which Dom Pedro took a 
very lively interest. It was his habit to map out his time 
most carefully, so that whenever he visited any city he might 
be able to see everything he wanted to see with the least pos- 
sible delay. In order, I suppose, to save time he wholly 
disregarded formalities, and studiously avoided ceremonial 
functions of every description. In true kingly fashion, he com- 
pelled everyone to fall in with his ideas. He took possession 
of each place he came to as if those he visited were his subjects ; 
and as if he were an arbitrary ruler. But his was the rule of 
a kindly monarch. Those whom he visited never bore malice; 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

indeed, they enjoyed many a laugh at the magnificent manner 
in which he accompUshed his protean sightseeing. 

It was known in a general way that the Emperor was about 
to visit Dublin. One fine morning he landed in the North 
of Ireland. By dint of a tremendous effort he visited the Giant's 
Causeway and a number of places in Belfast during the early 
part of the day. He then took a special train to Dublin, where 
he arrived late in the evening. He at once proceeded to 
Guinness's Brewery; after which he inspected another large 
factory in another part of the town. Finally, he attended a 
performance at the Gaiety Theatre. On returning late at night 
to the Shelbourne Hotel, he sent for the Lord Mayor. 

When that dignitary arrived, ready to place the whole re- 
sources of the city at His Majesty's disposal, the Emperor at 
once cut conversation short by saying that his particular object 
in coming to Dublin, was to see the great telescope which was 
being constructed by an instrument-maker in Dublin of world- 
wide celebrity. "I cannot," said His Majesty (who, by the 
way, had learnt to speak English exceedingly well since his 
visit to Edinburgh), "I cannot remember exactly the name of 
this great man of science, but, of course, you know whom I 
mean." The Lord Mayor looked at his secretary, and the secre- 
tary looked at him ! They were both at a loss. The Chief 
Citizen of Dublin then hazarded the name of a worthy spectacle- 
maker who lived near by, but the Emperor at once pooh-poohed 
that notion, saying that the name of the man he was looking 
for was something like "mub" or "tub." This hint failed to 
produce any effect, and the Emperor expressed his surprise that 
a man who called himself Lord Mayor of the city should be so 
ignorant of such an elementary matter. "At all events," he 
went on, "you must find out for me in the course of the night 
where the famous optician is, and take me to him to-morrow 
morning." By this time it was twelve o'clock on a Saturday 
night. The Lord Mayor and his secretary returned to the 
Mansion House, where I have no doubt they spent an anxious 
hour in considering how they could extricate the reputation of 
the city from the obloquy which Dom Pedro was inclined to 
cast upon it. Suddenly it was remembered that there was a 
person in the vicinity of Dublin known as the Astronomer 
Royal. Although I don't suppose they imagined that that 
humble individual was the person whom the Emperor wanted 
I 113 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

to see, yet it occurred to them that it was within the bounds 
of possibiHty that the Astronomer Royal might know whether 
in fact there was an eminent optician in Dubhn. To consult 
him might be to find a way out of the difficulty. I was at 
that time Astronomer Royal of Ireland. Once or twice I had 
said, half in jest, to my wife that when the Emperor of Brazil 
came to Dublin he would probably pay us a visit at Dunsink. 
So we had the Emperor somewhat on our minds. At about 
eight o'clock on the morning of Sunday I heard the sound of 
wheels on the avenue. For any vehicle to arrive there at that 
hour of the morning was rather unusual, but when I looked 
out of the window I was truly astonished at the apparition. 
There was the Lord Mayor's coach and pair driving up the 
avenue ! I came down at once. The Lord Mayor's secretary 
rushed in to tell me of the terrible anxiety under which his 
chief was labouring. He asked me whether there was any 
truth in the suggestion that some very big and famous telescope 
was being made in Dublin for Vienna. I replied that I did 
happen to know something about the matter; that, indeed, I 
was one of the committee to whom the general supervision of 
the work had been entrusted. He then begged me to come to 
Dublin at once, and forthwith to take the Emperor off to see 
Grubb and the telescope. I said, "Grubb's place will be shut 
up as it is Sunday." The agonised secretary replied, "Oh, the 
Emperor cares nothing about that, and we must do what we 
can." So there was nothing for it, but for me to go to Dublin 
and breakfast with the Lord Mayor, while we sent off messengers 
to Mr. Grubb at Rathmines, telling him of the visitation with 
which he was threatened, and imploring him to collect a few 
of his hands so as to open up his works as far as possible. 
I then sat down to await the convenience of His Majesty. As 
I ascertained a little later, he had already begun a truly 
colossal day of sightseeing. At some unearthly hour of the 
morning, he visited the Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, the 
Model Farm, and one, if not both, of the two great Dublin 
workhouses. Then he attended Mass at the Carmelite Church, 
in Whitefriar Street, and took a drive of eight miles round 
Phoenix Park. It was not until these items in his programme 
for the day had been ticked off that he was ready to receive 
me and to hear what I had to tell him about the telescope. 
I forgot to say that before seeing me he had also paid a visit 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

to Trinity College and its museum. In the museum he refused 
to look at anything except objects of special Irish interest, with 
which he had already made himself acquainted, namely, the 
superb collection of prehistoric flint weapons for which the 
museum is famous ; and I was told that when passing a case 
of stuffed animals he observed that the ant-eater was a fellow- 
countryman of his. 

When we arrived at Grubb's we found the famous telescope- 
maker waiting for us. He had succeeded in getting together 
a few of his exceptionally skilful workmen. At once the 
Emperor showed himself thoroughly informed on all matters 
relating to the great object-glass. He was also well acquainted 
with the particular requirements of the Vienna telescope. In 
accordance with his usual custom, he declined to look at any- 
thing which he had not decided would be worth his time. 
When he bade Grubb good-bye an amusing incident took place. 
His Majesty, though so well furnished intellectually, was, to 
put it mildly, by no means conspicuous for the regal splendour 
of his attire. As he was leaving he took up what he no doubt 
supposed to be his hat. In reality it was a beautiful new 
"Lincoln and Bennett" belonging to Grubb. The Emperor 
had left behind what we call in Ireland "an old cawbeen." He 
was on the point of stepping into his carriage when the secre- 
tary, who was evidently accustomed to these little lapses on 
the part of His Majesty, effected the necessary exchange of 
head-dress ! I had noticed that, while the Emperor had 
driven up with his secretary in one carriage, an empty vehicle 
had followed behind. The object of this I did not know 
at the time. But when we were leaving Grubb's, Dom Pedro 
shook hands with me, and pointed to the empty carriage, 
saying: "That is at your disposal for any purpose what- 
ever." As he was calling out to his coachman to drive 
to the College of Surgeons, we separated. I did, however, 
get one further glimpse of his carriage later in the day, when 
I was returning to my home at the Observatory. The Em- 
peror had, of course, been hard at work all the afternoon. In 
fact, the day's sightseeing he accomplished was, I believe, 
unparalleled. It included three distinct drives in the Phoenix 
Park, with innumerable visits in between. I saw his carriage 
driving up at last to the station, while two fat horses drawing 
the Lord Mayor's carriage were taxing all their energies to 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

keep up with the Emperor. When he arrived at Kingsbridge 
Station he had a quarter of an hour to wait. "Oh," said he, 
"there will be just time to see the Royal Hospital." A diligent 
study of the map had shown the whereabouts of this establish- 
ment. Off he went up to the hospital, which I believe at that 
time still contained two or three Waterloo veterans. By the 
time he returned to the station it was well past the hour of 
starting. At last he and his retinue took their seats. The 
stationmaster appearing to be somewhat embarrassed, someone 
asked him why he did not start the train, which was already 
late. But he said there was just a slight difficulty — a little 
technical inadvertence. The Imperial party had not paid their 
fares. This was pointed out to the worthy secretary, Don 
Retero, who, with a thousand apologies, at once made the 
matter straight. And the Emperor at last went off to Killarney, 
having during his twenty-four hours in Dublin achieved a 
record in sightseeing. 

What I saw of the Emperor in Dublin created an impres- 
sion which was confirmed by what I remember hearing of him 
elsewhere. He made up his mind to see every important man 
of science, and every important institution or manufactory that 
could be encompassed in his tours. He steadily scorned any 
inducement to spend a moment of his time on what he con- 
ceived to be less worthy objects. He was an early riser, and 
thought nothing of sending a message to Sir Richard Owen 
or to Sir Joseph Hooker to say that he intended to call on 
them at six o'clock the next morning. He had not many more 
years of sovereignty in Brazil. A revolution — happily a peace- 
ful one so far as he was concerned — took place, and he 
retired, to spend the few remaining years of his life in intel- 
lectual pursuits, without the cares of a kingdom. He seemed 
to have inspired nothing but friendly and cordial feelings in 
the minds of all who came across him in Great Britain. 

Among my neighbours at Dunsink, Mr. John G. Rathborne 
deserves special mention. He was one of the best friends I 
ever had, and the walk home from Castleknock Church on 
Sunday mornings was always rendered delightful by his 

I would like here to set down the last letter we ever had 
from him. He was then suffering from an incurable malady, 
which three months later proved fatal. My wife had sent him 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

a little Christmas token, and here is his reply (December 31st, 

" I really cannot find words to express my gratitude for your 
very kind letter and the book you sent me, which I value very 
much. I also received a letter from my beloved friend Sir 
Robert, and feel that it is just the letter I would like to write 
to him, feeling sure that such love will never end. Wishing your- 
self, Sir Robert, and your charming family a happy and pros- 
perous New Year, and many many happy returns." 

The autobiographical part of this chapter may be suitably 
brought to a close by the final passage of the last report which 
my father made to the Board of Trinity College. It was dated 
June 30th, 1892 : 

"Before closing this report, it is my duty to notify to the 
Board that last February I accepted the Lowndean Chair of 
Astronomy and Geometry at Cambridge. Since this I have 
been appointed Director of the Cambridge Observatory, and 
have received a Fellowship at King's College. 

"I am sure the Visitors will readily believe me when I say 
that it is not without many painful feelings that I contemplate 
the severance from so many cherished associations which my 
acceptance of these new duties will involve. Eighteen years 
have elapsed since the Board committed to me the charge of 
Dunsink Observatory. Since then my relations with the Board 
have at all times, I am glad to think, been of the happiest 
description. I recognised in them not merely my official 
superiors, but my warm personal friends. 

" I am glad to think that I shall leave the observatory in 
a high state of efficiency. During my time the electric 
chronograph has been added, the clock control system has 
been organised in a very effective manner, and Mr. Roberts' 
splendid gift * has now added what alone was wanting to place 
our observatory in the very forefront of similar institutions, so 
far as equipment is concerned. To the maintenance and im- 
provement of the establishment generally, inside and outside, 
I have also devoted much attention, and I shall presently 
request the attention of the Board to a separate communication 
bearing on the matter. Let me add in conclusion the expres- 
sions of my sincere good wishes for the future of Dunsink, in 
which beautiful home I have passed the busiest and the happiest 
years of my life. As this must be the last occasion on which 

• A reflecting telescope of 15 in. aperture. 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

I shall have the honour of receiving the Visitors, I bid them 
a heartfelt farewell." 

# « ♦ ♦ ♦ 

So much for his own record of the life at Dunsink. Before 
he went there he had consulted Professor Adams, whom he was 
to succeed at Cambridge, as to a line of research. The Professor 
wrote as follows (July 14th, 1875): 

" I hope you will pardon me for having taken so long a 
time before sending a reply to your letter, but I wished to give 
some consideration to the subject before replying, and just 
after your letter arrived I was called away to London, and 
thus prevented from giving any thoughts to it for more than 
a week. 

"Of all the subjects which you mention, I think that the 
Theory of Jupiter's Satellites would be most likely to repay for 
additional investigation. M. Souillart has published an essay 
on the subject in Tome 2 of the Annates Scientifiques de 
I'Ecole Normale Superieure, in which he treats the problem by 
the method of the variation of the arbitrary constants ; but I 
do not see that he has added anything to the theory of Laplace. 
The tables of Damoiseau also do not accord well with observa- 
tion, and are not quite satisfactory from a theoretical point of 
view, if I rightly understand his introduction. 

" This subject, however, will require a very considerable 
amount of labour. 

" The Theory of Precession and Nutation is also a good 
subject to take up, though more has been done in it since Laplace 
than in the above subject. For this you should consult Peters' 
Numerus constans Nutationis, and also Poisson's Memoirs in 
the Journal de I'Ecole Poly technique, and in the Memoires 
de V Academie des Sciences, Tome 7, and likewise the memoir 
by M. Serret in the Annales de VObservatoire Imperial de 
Paris, Tome 5. A kindred subject, though not in your list, 
is the Theory of Libration of the Moon. It is true that this 
theory may be already considered to be complete, through the 
labours of Lagrange, Laplace, and Poisson, but it would be 
highly desirable to redetermine the coefficient of the principal 
term of the real libration in longitude, by more numerous obser- 
vations than are employed by M. Nicollet in his memoirs in the 
additions to the Connaissance des Temps for 1822 and 1823. It 
would be interesting also to find whether observation shows any 
trace of those arbitrary terms in the libration which depend on 
the initial circumstances. 

" The Theory of the Satellites of Saturn would form an ex- 
cellent subject of investigation, if there were not an almost 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

complete deficiency of observations with which to compare the 
results of the theory. Bessel has done something towards the 
theory of the sixth satellite in the ninth volume of the Astro- 
nomische Nachrichten. If what I have said above helps you at 
all in making up your mind what problem to attack, I shall be 
very glad." 

Sir Joseph Larmor has written the following recollections 
of my father at about this period : 

"My first acquaintance with Sir Robert Ball dates from 
the early 'eighties, when, as Professor at the Queen's Uni- 
versity in Ireland, and subsequently as Examining Fellow at 
the Royal University, I used to spend several weeks each 
year in Dublin. The way in which I was made free of Trinity 
College and welcomed into the intellectual circle of the Uni- 
versity is one of my most pleasant recollections of those days. 
The Fellows and Professors were a body small enough to 
form an organic society, keenly interested, after the usual 
manner of Irishmen, in each other's pursuits and activities. 
Although many of them were recognised authorities in special 
branches of knowledge, it seemed to be impossible for any one 
to remain content to turn his solitary furrow without coming 
into contact with the personalities and intellectual work of 
his colleagues. This community formed a recognised part — 
indeed, it was almost the centre — of *a larger society which 
included the Bench and Bar and the learned professions of 
Ireland, and not a few of the Irish country gentry who main- 
tained a lifelong devotion to their University. Thus leavened 
from without, the Fellows and Professors did not become 
absorbed in details of academic administration, while the 
national sense of humour saved their, visitors from being over- 
awed by the presence of intellectual authority. The general 
company would freely take part in the discussion of subjects in 
which they could not pretend to be more than amateurs. The 
breadth of substantial attainment amongst the men who moved 
in this circle was remarkable, and the stimulus resulting from 
contact and comparison between adjacent sciences was often 
most conducive to the progress of special branches of knowledge. 

"It was with such an atmosphere that Robert Ball was 
surrounded from his early years; and he thoroughly imbibed 
that full flavour and zest peculiar to Irish scholarship, which 
subsequent residence in England never diminished. After 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

morning chapel on Sundays his college friends would walk 
to the observatory at Dunsink, through the exquisite scenery 
of the Phoenix Park, to meet, at or after lunch, other pilgrims 
from Dublin, or public men resident in the neighbourhood. 
Whether expected or not, these visitors never disturbed the 
even and ample flow of Lady Ball's hospitality. Among them 
I recall George Francis FitzGerald, who was then still living 
in college. He represented to a great extent the tie which 
connected the exuberant activities of the younger Trinity with 
the sympathetic but more sedate ideas of the Senior Fellows. 
By his perfervid genius he was then rapidly attaining a position 
of authority and influence in British physical science, in which 
his premature decease was to leave so large a gap. 

"Between Ball and FitzGerald there was a strong tie of 
common intellectual interests. Both were stirred by the same 
deep, not to say romantic, curiosity about the intimate modes 
of evolution of natural agencies. Each managed to combine 
a wide field of view, which might have been a dissipating 
influence, with profound attainment and luminous thought 
in his own special department. The conversation at Dunsink 
would sometimes wander to the personal traits and character of 
Sir William Rowan Hamilton, Ball's greatest predecessor as 
Astronomer Royal of Ireland. The subject of Irish archaeology 
was never far away, stimulated, as it was, by the famous and 
magnificent collection of the Royal Irish Academy, now 
deposited in the National Museum of Ireland. I can remember 
Ball relating, with a glow of enthusiasm, how, when calling 
on an eminent physician who was also an archaeologist, he 
would sometimes be taken into an inner sanctum to discuss 
the national significance of some antiquarian relic, while the 
patients, who flocked to consult the medical specialist, had to be 
informed that he was engaged ! " 

During the earlier years at Dunsink, my father had many 
difficulties to contend with. The salary was small, his family 
was increasing, and the amenities of the place were not such 
as to relieve him from anxiety. One of these difficulties was 
to secure an adequate supply of water, the only source being 
a very deep well in the yard. A glimpse of the early life may 
be obtained from the following letter to his sister, Mrs. 
Thomson (August nth, 1874): 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

" We are beginning to get settled. Price came yesterday and 
put up blinds, Jones comes to-day to put up curtains, and Millar 
and Beatty to-morrow to put down carpets. The cow is grazing 
on the lawn (she kicks when being milked !), the horse (he has 
an obstinate cough) is comfortable in the stable, and the an- 
cestors smile on us at meal-times as heretofore ! F. likes the 
place, and takes a great interest in various small matters con- 
nected with the garden, etc., particularly in the ripening of a 
swarm of Magnum Bonum plums. Robin is well, and Sis is 
jubilant, but was in great grief the other day from the sting 
of a wasp, and more so I think from the boiling water which 
the nurse applied as remedy! I have not yet cultivated the 
other child, but from the reports I hear I believe he is alive and 
well. Mr. Rathbome has given them the run of his fields, which 
are much pleasanter than ours for such a purpose. For my own 
part, I love the place and the work more and more, and am 
thankful that my lines have so fallen. The only thing I miss 
here (if I am still to grumble) is what you have so much of at 
Waterville — water. I don't fly so high as the sea or a lake or 
a river, but I would like a pond or a stream, or even a good 

It may be of interest to give some account of his private 
life at this period. Such notes, however, are limited by the 
fact that they are made by one whose memory does not go 
back very far. 

I remember my father in the Dunsink days as a strong man 
who worked with unremitting zeal — often both night and day. 
When his parallax work kept him up half the night,. he would 
toil during the day at his mathematics ("sums," as we children 
used to call them) and at his books. My earliest recollection 
of his work in the obser\-atory dates back to 1882, when the 
Transit of Venus took place. I was told off to carry out lunch 
to the dome, where the South Equatorial was exposed to the 
wintry sky. I duly performed my mission, to be rewarded at 
the end by a peep through a tourmaline lens at the orb of day ! 
My earliest recollections of his literary life date from the 
preparation of "The Story of the Heavens." He was suffering 
from lumbago at the time, and I remember him lying at full 
length on the floor of his study, as that was the only position 
in which he could write with comfort. From year's end to 
year's end he never seemed to think it necessary to take a 
real holiday. 

It must be confessed that a succession of fine nights was 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

not a source of gratification to us children. They involved the 
absence of our chief playmate; for he often took a prominent 
part in our games. He would sometimes assume his observatory 
costume, and appear in our midst as a brown bear. More 
often he would tell us stories of his own invention — stories 
which ran on from evening to evening. But perhaps he pleased 
us best when he drew upon his large store of miscellaneous 
scientific knowledge. On countless occasions we enjoyed the 
magic lantern, the smoke ring box, and the art of making 
gunpowder and Bengal fire. 

He taught us two games which were always very popular. 
The first was a species of cock-shy. A number of well-corked 
empty bottles were procured. Armed with these, we would go 
to the banks of the little river Tolka. A bottle would be thrown 
into the stream, and the game was to hit and sink it when 
carried along by the current. The other game was founded upon 
something which he told us after a sojourn in Holland. He 
explained a device which was adopted by farmers who keep 
ducks in that watery land, in order to bring the birds home 
to the farmyard in the evening. The farmer's wife would ring 
a bell, at the sound of which every bird would hasten home 
with all possible speed — urged on by the knowledge that the 
last duck to arrive would be soundly beaten ! One of the young 
people was told off to act as the farmer's wife, armed with 
the dinner-bell. Upon its being sounded each and all would 
hurry to the rendezvous, and woe betide the one that was 

Many a time did he hold us enthralled by his conversa- 
tion at table, touching with the skill of a master upon the 
current events of the day, explaining and expounding all 
sorts of subjects. As anyone who has read his books or heard 
him lecture is well aware, he was by no means a man of 
one book or one subject. He could talk of much else besides 
astronomy, much else of a scientific or quasi-scientific char- 
acter, which he could present in delightful form to the mind 
of youth. Botany, zoology, geology, engineering— upon all 
these great studies he could answer questions which children 
are wont to ask. Long after the table in the old dining-room 
at Dunsink was cleared we would sit to absorb instruction, not 
recognising it to be such. Nor did he merely play the part 
of a man of science; political economy was one of his early 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

studies, and he could explain it by the hour. Last but not 
least, his perfectly amazing memory for all the events of his 
early life supplied him with a vast fund of incident and 
anecdote which made a strong appeal to the imagination. 

My sister-in-law, Mrs. Robert Ball, the mother of Stella 
and Robert ("Robin"), writes as follows: 

"His love for children and his capacity for amusing and 
interesting them soon found a way to their affections. He de- 
lighted in that quick response which a child gives to sympathetic 
interest in its little pleasures. 

"He was devoted to his grandchildren* and they to him, 
and was never too busy or too absorbed to see them. If one 
of them happened to trot into his study when he was deep in 
mathematics, he would turn round at once and with his welcom- 
ing voice call out : ' Ah ! is that you, my dear ? ' The papers 
would then be pushed aside, and, sitting on Grandpapa's 
knee, the little visitor would be entertained by him in his 
inimitable way. 

"In the early stages of his last illness, when they ran up 
to his bedroom to kiss him 'Good morning,' he would not 
let them leave without inviting them to thrust their hands 
under his pillows to see if by any chance some packet of 
chocolate had not become wedged into the hollows. His simple 
goodness appealed even to their youthful minds, for on one 
occasion when they were listening to the history of the 
patriarchs, Robin (then aged 4^^ years) inquired : ' Was 
Abraham as good as Grandpapa ? ' " 

His experience of horses was anything but satisfactory; 
indeed he met with so many disasters that he used to say 
the horse was one of Nature's mistakes. On one occasion he had 
returned with my mother, late at night, from some festivity in 
Dublin. Shortly after they retired the coachman rushed in to 
announce that the mare had overturned the brougham in the 
yard ! Nor were his experiences with cows much more satis- 
factory. In summer the feeding of the cows was a simple 
matter, inasmuch as the grounds attached to the observatory 
included several acres of good pasture. In winter, however, 
their diet had to be supplemented, and they were regaled on a 

* The names of his grandchildren are : Stella Elizabeth Ball, Robert Sturge Ball, 
Harold Stawell Ball Meakin, Henry Barcroft, Robert Ball Barcroft, and Peter 
Halley Ball. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

delicious viand known as cotton cake. The gardener — who 
acted as cowherd in his spare time — had never heard of this 
substance before, and did not believe in it. Moreover, he was 
profoundly ignorant of the quantity which should be adminis- 
tered. In the result his master provided him with a scales, and 
prescribed so much per diem for each animal. Notwithstanding 
these precautions, the "fodder" disappeared at an appalling 
rate. I well remember hearing the gardener being upbraided 
for his extravagance. His reply was : 

"Ah ! Sir Robert, that cotton cake is very heavy stuff. A 
pound of that weighs more nor a pound of hay ! " 

My father tried various experiments with artificial dressings 
for the soil, e.g. bone meal, and superphosphates, nitrates, 
basic slag and the like. This treatment of pasture land was 
comparatively new in Ireland in those days, and was viewed 
with suspicion and distrust by all the neighbouring farmers 
until the results were made manifest. It was therefore with 
great delight that he received a visit from the steward of a large 
estate close by, who inquired of him where he had obtained 
the material which produced such a magnificent crop of hay. 

He tried smoking when he was thirteen, but he abandoned 
the practice after he had nearly finished his first pipe and never 
resumed it. He took stimulants with great moderation. At one 
time he thought of becoming a teetotaller, not (as he wrote to 
his sister, Mrs. Millington, on December 2nd, 1880) "for any 
noble motives." He announced (in the letter referred to) that 
he wished to take the pledge because "The fact is I find that 
I (like, I believe, most other people) do not require strong 
liquors, and am better without them. Hospitable people are 
often pressing me, and to save trouble I take sometimes what 
I would really much rather be without. A teetotaller cannot 
be pressed, and people will not bother him. To me it will be 
a gain of liberty and not a sacrifice." 

He was always fond of dogs. The first that I can remember 
was a retriever which bore the name of "Grouse." He used 
to tell us that the very day after he purchased this animal he 
took it for a walk to Dublin (a distance of about five miles), 
when the dog got lost. Upon returning home late that night 
Grouse met him on the doorstep, having found his way back by 
a route which it had only traversed once. Another dearly 
beloved dog was a collie named "Focus," which accompanied 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

the family from Dublin to Cambridge, where it lived for many 
years. The demise of "Pat," a fox terrier, another Cambridge 
favourite, is referred to in a letter to Mrs. Millington (May 6th, 

"I am just engaged in breaking into decent behaviour a new 
house-dog, ' Taffy,' the successor of ' Pat.' Pat, after a happy 
life with us for ten years, has died of Anno Domini (with the 
help of a little assistance), poor chap." 

While he was Astronomer Royal of Ireland my father estab- 
lished a custom which endeared him to the hearts of the under- 
graduates of Trinity. 

Elementary astronomy was one of the subjects for the 
ordinary degree, and he used to give a course of lectures in 
college. He was not, however, content with abstract teaching. 
He afforded the students an opportunity of seeing the instru- 
ments at Dunsink, where he was able to point out their practical 
application to the science of astronomy. 

On four successive Saturdays in the spring, parties of 
students were invited to the observatory. After a morning 
demonstration they were regaled at lunch. My childish recol- 
lection of these entertainments is associated with a huge silver- 
side of beef and an enormous bowl of Normandy pippins, 
which formed part of the accustomed fare ; and I well remember 
the sound of the cheers which were given for the Professor 
when the students took their departure. In his journeyings 
up and down the world, Sir Robert used to say that he often 
met old students of T.C.D. whose names and faces he had 
long since forgotten, but who remembered their visits to the 
observatory. The elements of astronomy may have faded from 
their recollection, but they remembered the genial hospitality 
of their kindly mentor ! 

After he moved to Cambridge the instinct of hospitality to 
the students remained with him to the end. Aided and abetted 
by him, my mother would hunt up the names of my father's 
friends who happened to have sons or nephews at the Univer- 
sity, and never a Sunday passed without a number of students 
being invited to lunch. Even the most timid undergraduate 
was soon at ease in his presence. 

It was in the year 1883 that he first began to have serious 
trouble with his right eye. He consulted Sir W. Bowman, who 
prescribed dark glasses and rest for the eyes, but though he 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

held out some hopes, he was not sanguine about being able 
to restore the bad eye perfectly. 

Those were not the days of celestial photography, and prac- 
tical astronomy put a severe strain upon the sight. My father 
was sorely troubled by an affliction which threatened to inter- 
fere with his life's work. 

Notwithstanding the care and attention of Dr. Storey and 
Sir William Bowman, the bad eye grew worse, and he even- 
tually lost the sight of it altogether. But he bore this trial with 
characteristic fortitude. Writing to Mrs. Millington, he said : 

" I have grave anxieties, but they are largely, if not quite, 
counterbalanced by a calm feeling of thankfulness that I have 
been permitted to use my eyes for so long, and that the trouble 
has come at a time when ' rest ' does not seem so disastrous as 
it would have done ten or five or even two years ago. I have 
kind masters who will, I feel sure, remember that I worked hard 
when I could work, and that I have brought some credit to ray 
old University. I have no literary engagements which I cannot 
fulfil. My book (' The Story of the Heavens ') has long been 
out of my hands, and perhaps this dispensation has come to 
prevent me from reading the reviews ! Besides, a mathematician 
has resources which no one else can understand. It is no tedium, 
but rather a lofty delight for me to sit by the hour and think 
of deep matters. My chief anxiety is not at all for myself, 
but for those dependent upon me. The tenderness of wife and 
children has been inexpressibly dear to me. I have, however, 
no anxiety, or, at all events, very little, about the good eye. 
It is a perfect one at present, and I see none of the phenomena 
there which have been in the other for so many years." 

He was a voluminous reader. It sometimes amazed me to 
hear of the number of books he had read, and his accurate 
memory enabled him to speak of them long afterwards. Nor 
was his reading confined to scientific matters. He loved books 
of travel ; and when the shelf containing the Mudie books was 
replenished the newest works of travel in all parts of the globe 
were always to be found there. He said that "The First Cross- 
ing of Greenland" was the finest of Nansen's works. But his 
literary tastes were catholic. I found him one day reading 
"The Stones of Venice." "Yes/' he said, "I like imaginative 
things." He also delighted in history. He had read Alison's 
"History of Europe" three times. Modern fiction he did not 
care for, but he loved Dickens and Thackeray. He knew "The 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

Pickwick Papers" from cover to cover, and could quote long 
passages without omitting a single word. He also knew and 
often quoted Thackeray's "Book of Snobs," and he loved Jane 
Austen. Among Mark Twain's works he always chose "Life 
on the Mississippi" for special mention. 

He was always anxious to illuminate his lectures on 
astronomy and kindred subjects with practical information of 
all kinds. 

In 1881 he wrote to George Francis FitzGerald for informa- 
tion with regard to tidal effects in comets. He received the 
following reply (October 31st, 188 1) : 

" I cannot see how tides can have much to do with comets* 
tails. Of course, they would tend to distort the comet, and 
somewhat unsymmetrically. If there were no rotation of the 
cometary mass on itself, it would be drawn out towards the sun, 
and rather more on the side next the sun than away from it. 
If the cometary mass have rotation, the matter is, of course, 
much more complicated, but if Newton's investigation holds at 
all in this extreme case, there should be a tendency to flatten 
towards the sun, and there seems no evidence of this. Besides, 
I thought that Newton (?), of America, had shown that parts 
of the tail moved as if under a force directed towards or from 
the sun only, and I further thought that he had shown that it 
was like a repulsive force, and no .rotation or tides could bring 
out such a result. It seems likely that the cometary attraction 
controls the motion of the tail little, if at all, and if we may 
neglect it, the effect of rotation is comparatively easily calcu- 
lated, for the different parts of the mass go on their way in 
separate orbits, and as far as I can see the effect is to draw out 
the comet at right angles to the direction of the sun. 

"The only theory of comets' tails I know is one founded on 
Clerk Maxwell's result that ' radiation should repel.' If the 
molecules be of large enough area compared with their mass, 
they will be repelled instead of being attracted by the sun. If 
any observations of the deformation of a comet's tails by a cold 
body could be got at, it would settle the question as to whether 
it were attracted by it, and so whether the repulsion were due to 
the sun's being hot. I don't know whether the great comet which 
ran into Jupiter developed a tail during the passage, or whether 
the passage was seen at all ; but if it did not, I think it would 
have to be acknowledged that the development of tail was due 
to the sun's being hot. Of course, the only effect of this might 
be to volatilise the cometary matter, but the development of a 
repulsive force seems another possible consequence. 

" I was vaguely aware that some doubt had been thrown on 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

the resistance of Encke's Comet, and I am glad to hear it has 
been quashed. What I wrote to you shows that a combination 
of a velocity propagation of gravity and a resisting medium 
could not counteract one another's effects on a comet, though they 
might on a planet, and so removes both hypotheses — which is a 
very much to be desired consequence — from physical astronomy. 

" I once calculated the size of the molecules in order that 
they might be neither attracted nor repelled by the sun, accord- 
ing to Maxwell's theory, and if you like I will look it up. The 
earth may have a tail, as some suppose, and it would be odd 
if it had not, unless all the matter that is so large, moleculed in 
proportion to its mass, has been repelled out of the solar system 
long ago, and only returns from the cold abysses of space in the 
train of comets. Though no atoms may be so large, yet some 
molecules may, and the evidence seems to be that the comets' 
tails are hydrocarbons ; and if the right kind existed on the 
earth, and near the limits of the atmosphere, so as to get the 
full force of the solar radiation, it would make a little tail 
to the earth. 

" I dare say you recollect Stoney's theory as to the light 
from comets' tails. He thought it might be a case of selective 
reflection, and according to Stokes's theory of selective absorp- 
tion there ought to be selective reflection, too — or rather 
selective diffusion, which is what Stoney wanted. The solar 
vibrations of a particular period are taken up by the gas, and 
it is set in vibration primarily at that period, and, if there are 
not many impacts, there is reason to suppose that each molecule 
will go on vibrating at the intensity it is set going with until 
it has radiated its energy all round. It is then absorbing vibra- 
tions from the sun and giving out the same all round. Stoney 
tried some experiments to try and verify this theory in the case 
of light diffused from iodine vapour, but the results were not 
very satisfactory. The only similar effect is fluorescence, and 
why cold gases should not be fluorescent I can't see. On the 
whole the theory seems sound, and I am intending to try some 
further experiments on the vapours of fluorescent hydrocarbons. 

"I think I have told you all I have ever surmised about 
comets, and hope it may not cause you nausea." 

He was always on the look out for poetical quotations with 
which to adorn his lectures and his writings. In April, 1877, 
Professor Edward Dowden wrote to him : 

" Milton (who saw Galileo in prison) planned his poem on 
strictly Ptolemaic doctrine, but really inclined to believe the 
Copernican true. This is all admirably discussed in Masson's 
preface to his new edition of Milton. 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

" Two passages in ' Paradise Lost ' show his inclination to 
Copernican Astronomy {see Book VIII., 123, 899, and Book IV., 


"But in Book VIII., 90 and 99, there is a defence of the 
Ptolemaic theory against objections. For diurnal motion of sun 
see Book V., 1 71-179. Sunset, Book VIII., 630. 

"The crystalline spheres and primum mobile, Book III., 
481-483. But I can't find — though the idea is so familiar — any 
passage telling of Adam's feelings at the first setting of the sun. 

" The following fine sonnet of Blanco WTiite, which Coleridge 
called the finest sormet in the English language, touches on the 
idea you want : 


* Mysterious Night ! when our first parent knew 

Thee from report divine, and heard thy name, 
Did he not tremble for this lovely frame. 
The glorious canopy of light and blue? ' 

"I don't think I need copy more, for the rest is not to the 
point. It is given in Trench's 'Household Book of English 
Poetry.' " 

On March 9th, 1882, my father received a characteristic 
letter from Lady (then Mrs.) Huggins, announcing that she 
and Sir William Huggins had succeeded in photographing 
the spectrum of a nebula : 

"You may remember that when we had the pleasure of see- 
ing you here about Christmas, and we were talking in our 
library, I bewailed to you the non-success of our efforts to get 
a photograph of the spectrum of a nebula. As I lamented to 
you, I cannot deny myself the pleasure of telling you that on 
Tuesday night (7th) we succeeded in getting a fhotografh of 
the spectrum of the Great 'Nebula in Orion. 

"My husband sent a paper giving results of examination of 
the photograph to the Royal Society yesterday. I was very 
busy helping him, or I should have sent you a line sooner, 
for I think you will be interested. You shall have a paper 
as soon as possible. 

" What delights me very much is that our photograph is so 
far satisfactory, that with longer exposure than we were able 
to give the other evening (owing to clouds coming up) we may, 
I think, hope for even better photographs of the Great Nebula ; 
and even to succeed in getting photographs of the spectra of 
other nebulae. A series of such photographs could hardly fail 
to add to our knowledge. But I need not tell you there are 
many difficulties both as regards conditions and as regards 
J 129 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

operation in any such work, and perhaps we may never be able 
to do much more. 

" Tuesday night was ahnost the only night during the last 
three years we have had clear enough to give much chance of 
success with a nebula, and even then we were hindered by clouds 

" Pray pardon me if I have too much intruded on your time. 

"My husband and I unite in very kind regards to you. We 
have not the pleasure of knowing Mrs. Ball, but I trust she will 
— in a scientifically prospective spirit — appropriate some of the 
above kind regards, 

" Such appropriation, I am sure, should be looked upon as 
a most reasonable exercise of Woman's Rights! Some day, no 
doubt, Mrs. Ball will come to London with you, and then 
we shall hope to have the pleasure of making her acquaint- 

"P.S. — I should like to add that since Christmas a great 
many people who attended your R.I. lectures have said to 
me how useful in many ways the lectures were to them. Some, 
I know, are following them up by home reading, I think it 
may be gratifying to you to know this. — M. L. H." 

On January 28th, 1886, he received a letter from Benjamin 
Apthorp Gould, which is reminiscent of Sir William Rowan 
Hamilton : 

" You very kindly say that you wish you could have been 
at the Vendome Hotel. May I reciprocate in wishing I could 
revisit the Dunsink Observatory, where in the first week of Sep- 
tember, 1845 {eheu! fugaces) I passed a most delightful day 
with that delightful man, Sir Wm. R. Hamilton. Through all 
these years the remembrance of his genial, cordial hospitality 
has remained vivid, and of how he walked in the bright evening 
back to the city with me, a boy of twenty — to make sure that 
the inexperienced Yankee should not lose his way," 

Having become famous as a popular exponent of astronomy, 
my father received numerous letters from people who were 
wholly unknown to him, asking for advice and assistance. 
Before his correspondence grew too large he would generally 
reply to these letters. If asked for his autograph, he would 
generally send it on a post card — his theory being that, 
although such a favour was not worth asking, it was not worth 
refusing. Here is a request, however, which was not granted. 
Writing from Cardiff, a young man who shall be nameless 
said : 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

"I am a young and enthusiastic astronomer, but hitherto 
have been under the great disadvantage of possessing only a 
telescope of small aperture and very low magnifying power, 

" I am therefore taking the liberty of writing to beg from 
you the favour of a subscription towards the purchase of a much 
larger instrument. 

" This is a course which I have long hesitated to adopt, and 
I sincerely trust, sir, that you will not regard this in the light 
of an ordinary begging letter, as my salary is quite sufficient 
for my daily needs. But I have for a very long time set my 
heart upon a large telescope, and if you will kindly assist me 
to the attainment of this object, and will kindly acquiesce in 
this (what may appear to you strange) request, I shall be most 
deeply grateful. With many apologies, I have the honour 
to be," etc. 

Some idea of his many activities during the life at Dunsink 
may be obtained from his letters. On March 6th, 1886, he 
wrote to Professor Minchin : 

"If you are dead and buried, why can't you say so like a 
man, and not leave me to learn the fact inferential ly from your 
silence? I was meditating an advance on Cooper's Hill the last 
time I was over, but was not able to manage it. Come over and 
see us while we still exist. How is the book getting on ? I long 
to have a talk with you over things sundry. I have been troubled 
since I saw you with my eyes — or rather eye. It had been 
failing for years, and now is wholly gone. However, the other 
is all right, and I am quite comfortable, except that I have to 
w>ear dark spectacles occasionally, and I make slight parallactic 
mistakes incident to a one-eyed condition. The German edition 
of the ' Theory of Screws ' is going through the press. I have 
seen the first forty-eight pages. It will be much larger than the 
original, as not only are all the papers added, but there are 
copious notes introduced by the editor. I am also seeing the 
' Admiralty Manual of Scientific Inquiry ' through the press, 
and correcting a new edition of the * Story of the Heavens,' which 
has had a success that I did not expect. I am trying to get my 
notions on the Dynamics of Elliptic Space into shape, but it 
seems a tremendous subject, full of interest at every point and 
with countless theorems of the most ravishing beauty. I cannot 
tell you how much pleasure it gave me when I knew that you 
had read the ' Screws.' There is still a great problem to be 
solved which, after fifteen years, I feel as far from as ever. It 
is this. Given the impulsive screw, deduce by geometrical con- 
struction with the momental ellipsoid ( ? ) the corresponding in- 
stantaneous screw. I could worship the man who could give an 
elegant Poinsot-like solution to this." 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

To those who consulted him upon scientific matters not 
connected with astronomy he would sometimes send a playful 
reply. The Rev. C. B. Phipps has favoured me with an account 
of a certain correspondence which his father had with Sir 
Robert. Writing to me on May 15th, 1913, he said : 

"My father (now deceased), Charles Hare Phipps, 
M.A., T.C.D., was a regular correspondent, about thirty years 
ago, with Sir Robert, and I have many times seen and read 
Sir Robert's letters to him. One letter I am particularly anxious 
to find — it used to tickle me much. About thirty years ago 
my father invented a ' perfect ' lifeboat, about which he con- 
sulted Harland and Wolff ; but his invention did not meet with 
the attention it deserved ( ? ). In desperation my father sub- 
mitted all details of his marvel to Sir Robert, who wrote in 
most eulogistic terms of the lifeboat. Then followed a post- 
script, which I remember only too well : ' P.S. — The only thing, 
my dear Phipps, to be said against your invention is this — the 
lifeboat would not float.— R. B.' " 

On January nth, 1886, he received the following letter from 
Lord Carnarvon, who was then Lord-Lieutenant : 

" The eminent services that you have rendered to science and 
education will, I hope, justify in your eyes the proposal that 
I am about to make. It would give me great pleasure to confer 
upon you the honour of knighthood — if, as I trust, this should 
be acceptable to you. 

" May I add that, in proposing this public recognition of 
high services, I am making it not only to the Astronomer Royal, 
but to the Professor of Astronomy in the University of Dublin." 

The ceremony was duly performed at Dublin Castle on 
January 23rd. 

My father thus described the receipt of this letter to his 
sister, Mrs. Millington : 

" I want to tell you a secret which I think you will be glad 
to hear. 

"The Provost sent a special messenger here yesterday direct- 
ing me to come in at once. When I did so he handed me a letter 
from the Lord-Lieutenant to the effect that he wished to do 
honour to me and to the College at one stroke, and that he 
had written a similar letter to Dr. Hart, and that we are both 
to be knighted forthwith! 

" That I should be one of the two selected out of the Uni- 
versity, and chosen, I have but little doubt, by the advice of 
the Provost, has gratified me and Lady Ball (!) to no little 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

extent. The letter was a very nice one, and the whole thing 
has arisen in the most gratifying way. 

" I believe this is not to be mentioned until the Edict appears 
from the Castle, so, except to the Doctor, please do not mention 
it at present. To think of Dr. Hart and myself in the same 

"Of course, this association with the College makes it very 
flattering. I am gratified to believe that the College endorse the 
closing words of the Provost: 'It has been well earned.'" 

From a large number of letters of congratulation which he 
received I select the following. 
From Professor Piazzi Smyth : 

"How admirably Lord Carnarvon has proved the general 
estimation in which he is held as the best Viceroy there has 
ever been in Ireland, by picking out for the high honour of 
knighthood the man of ablest mind, highest ideal, and noblest 
of pursuits in the kingdom, viz., the present Astronomer Royal 
thereof. With hearty congratulations to yourself I remain, etc." 

Professor George J. Allman, from Ardmore, Parkstone, 
Dorset, wrote : 

" To myself specially it brings a pleasure of no common kind 
when I reflect on the fact that he who has been deemed worthy 
of this royal distinction is the son of my dear old friend, with 
whose memory that of my student life and of my early work in 
a field in which both of us laboured side by side is indissolubly 

Professor John Casey wrote : 

"Allow me first to congratulate you on your v.ell-merited 
distinction. I must say you are in good company in having 
the Vice-Provost of Trinity College as sharing in the same dis- 
tinction! I cannot tell you how glad I felt when I was told of 
it in the Irish Academy. 

" I read your ' Story of the Heavens ' with the greatest 
delight. Your power of popular exposition is wonderful ! " 

While he was at Dunsink my father read numerous papers 
at the Royal Irish Academy. The secretary has kindly 
favoured me with the following account of his connection with 
this institution : 

"He became a member in January, 1870, and on March i6th 
following he was elected to the Council — a ver\' unusual thing, 
as in most cases it is after years of membership that one is 
elected to the Council. He then became secretary of the 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

Academy in June, 1877, and held the office until 1880, but, 
with short intervals, when he retired in rotation, he remained 
on the Council until 1892, when he retired on account of his 
migration to Cambridge. He was a vice-president of the 
academy from 1885 to 1892. 

" If he had not gone to Cambridge he would certainly have 
been elected to the presidency of the academy in 1896, the year 
in which the late Earl of Rosse, F.R.S., was elected. As the 
work of the academy includes archaeology and linguistics, as 
well as science, it is the practice to alternate representatives of 
the two sides in the election of president. Accordingly, when 
Dr. Haughton retired from the chair in 1891, Bishop Reeves 
was elected, but as he only lived one year after his election, 
and as the presidency is for five years, Dr. Ingram was elected 
for the remaining four years of that term ; and so the next 
science turn did not occur until 1896, when Sir Robert was 
already settled in Cambridge. 

"All those who have been long enough connected with the 
academy to recall his presence amongst them retain, as you 
can well understand, the happiest recollections of his genial 
and kindly ways." 

On December 8th, 1879, Sir Robert had been honoured by 
receiving from the Royal Irish Academy a Cunningham Medal 
for his "Researches on Mechanics." Mr. W. Archer, F.R.S., 
was at the same time presented with a similar medal for his 
"Biological Researches." The President, Sir Samuel Fergu- 
son, LL.D., Q.C., spoke as follows when presenting the medal : 

"Dr. Ball's title to an eminent position in the world of 
Irish science, and in this academy, might claim the sanction 
of hereditary right — a claim which those who, like myself, 
have had the pleasure and advantage of association with his 
esteemed father in those efforts for the promotion of scientific 
objects to which much of the present eminent position of this 
academy is due — would be the first to recognise; but he can 
afford to waive even such well-founded rights to our sympathy 
and respect, and to rest his claims to the well-deserved honour 
he is now about to receive, on his own individual services to 
science and to the academy. 

"Having devoted himself specially to the cultivation of the 
mathematical and physical sciences, Dr. Ball became Pro- 


Astronomer Royal of Ireland 

fessor of Applied Mathematics in the Royal College of Science, 
on which position he conferred special value and importance by 
his admirable lectures on practical mechanics, and by the or- 
ganisation of laboratories for physical research and instruction. 
Those lectures have been published, and constitute a work of 
standard value in scientific literature. Some other works on 
mechanics and astronomy, of a more elementary character, 
served to illustrate Dr. Ball's powers as a clear and popular, 
while thoroughly accurate, expounder of scientific truth, as 
did also the various papers read and explained by him before 
the members of the academy. It is not, however, for those 
more popular results of Dr. Ball's labours that the Council 
have on this occasion showed their sense of his merits as an 
original thinker and discoverer in science, but for work of a 
more recondite character, the nature of which is much less 
capable of popular description, but the value and importance 
of which has been abundantly vouched for by the suffrages of 
eminent mathematicians throughout Europe. I refer to the 
series of memoirs published partly in our ' Transactions ' and 
partly in those of the Royal Society of London, and finally 
completed and published in a separate and independent form 
in his work on the ' Theory of Screws : A Study of the 
Dynamics of a Rigid Body.' . . . 

"It would not, however, sufficiently indicate the services 
rendered to science by Dr. Ball were I to omit to state that, 
since the transfer of his labours from the Royal College of 
Science to the University Observatory at Dunsink, he has 
zealously devoted himself to those astronomical researches 
for which a remarkable combination of mathematical and 
mechanical ability has so highly qualified him. Already he 
has laid before this Academy several memoirs embodying valu- 
able observatory work, and I understand that researches now 
in progress, especially as regards the important subject of 
parallax, promise to afford results which will redound to the 
credit of the University and of this Academy." 




MY father did not write any account of his experiences at 
Cambridge. I have therefore been compelled to con- 
struct this chapter very largely from his letters. If they do not 
tell a connected story, they will give some idea of his many 
and varied activities during this period. 

On February 20th, 1892, Sir Robert Ball was appointed to 
fill the Chair of Lowndean Professor at Cambridge, in suc- 
cession to Professor John Couch Adams. Shortly after- 
wards he was appointed Director of the Observatory, where 
he went to reside with his family in March, 1893. He held 
both posts and continued to live at the observatory until his 
death on November 25th, 19 13. 

He applied for the Cambridge professorship shortly after 
the death of Professor Adams. Writing to Mrs. Millington 
(February 15th, 1892), he said : 

"I little thought when the doctor told me of the death of 
Adams that evening at your house, that it was likely to cause 
me so much deliberation. I have, however, applied for his pro- 
fessorship, and the matter will be decided on Saturday. There 
are so many pros, and so many cons, that though I am sure I 
have done right in applying for it, yet I hardly know whether 
to hope that the telegram to arrive on Saturday will contain 
' Yes ' or ' No.' Of course, the dear mother is a very important 
element. Among the cons, however, as I would have seven 
months quite free at Cambridge and not be exactly killed by 
work during the other -five, I dare say we shall see nearly as 
much of our friends over here as we do now." 

He wrote to his mother on hearing of his appointment as 
Lowndean Professor (February 20th, 1892) : 

"The die is cast and to Cambridge we go. I know no 
details, except that Sir W. Thomson and Professor Darwin (both 
of them electors) and also Professor Macalister telegraph con- 
gratulations. I am sure we have done the right thing, though, 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

as you may imagine, it is the sundering of our links here that 
at the moment I am most thinking of. But at my time of life 
to have only five months of duty instead of ten, and to have 
advantages of all kinds for the children that I cannot give them 
here, are reasons that we cannot get over. It was clearly my 
duty to try. 

"Of course, my dearest mother, it is you of whom I am 
specially thinking, but I dare say I shall see quite as much of 
you as I have latterly been able to do. It will certainly be 
oftener than once in seven years (as Miss Garnett says) that I 
shall accept the comforts of your spare room. 

"As yet, of course, nothing whatever is settled as to the 
when and how." 

In lighter vein he wrote to his sister (February 20th) : 

" Yes, it is a great affair ! I suppose it is perhaps the highest 
scientific chair in England, if not in Europe, the Solar System, 
the Milky Way, or the Universe! 

"Truly a full week for our family. Poor Val off to Egypf, 
and ' Rob ' to Cambridge ! 

" The telegram announcing the appointment came to-day, and 
was opened by Randal * in the presence of the household : 

" ' You are elected. Sir William Thomson joins in 

'Tis seven months' holidays. 

'Tis easier for the housekeeper. 

'Tis better for the children. 

'Tis no cows. 

'Tis no horses. 

'Tis a lovely garden. 

'Tis nearer Amelia. 

'Tis awful fame and honour. But, alas! 

'Tis away from poor mother. 
But I dare say I shall spend quite as many hours with her as I 
now do." 

To Mrs. Adams (the widow of his predecessor) he wrote 
(February 24th, 1892) : 

" I can assure you that it is with a heavy sense of responsi- 
bility I find myself called to the chair that will be for ever 
famous as that adorned by him whose loss we so deeply deplore. 

" It will not, however, be now for the first time that his 
example will be a stimulus to me. It was reading the account 
of the discovery of Neptune in the ' Orbs of Heaven ' when I 
was a boy that first turned my attention in the direction of 

* Captain Randal Gresley Ball, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

astronomy, and well I remember the pride with which (in about 
1864) I accompanied Professor Adams on a walk round Howth, 
when we paid a visit to the Baily Lighthouse. He has always 
been a hero to me ; and when from time to time I have found 
opportunities of expressing my admiration of his noble work, I 
have never failed to do so. For example, I wrote the notice 
which appeared with his portrait among ' Scientific Worthies ' in 
'Nature' some years ago (Oct. 14th, 1886). 

"I enclose a letter which he most kindly wrote to me in reply 
to one of mine asking for advice as to the line of work I should 
follow at Dunsink. 

" It gratifies me very much to know that a memoir is to 
appear. Will you permit me to say that if in any manner what- 
ever I can aid the work I shall esteem it a high honour and 
privilege to be allowed to do %o ? " 

He wrote to his daughter Minnie (now Mrs. Barcroft) 
(March 5th, 1892) : 

"As to the professorship, it is a very mixed matter. I am, 
of course, quite sure that the change will be for all our benefits, 
but at the same time I am so sorry to break all our ties here. 
We had almost a touching scene at the Zoo this morning when 
they passed a resolution of regret at my departure, and indeed 
it is one of the things I regret most. However, I trust we shall 
be over a good deal from time to time. 

"But the advantages of Cambridge are so many for all of 
us that I have no doubt whatever as to the move. It will be so 
much easier for the mother and so much more advantageous to 
all of us to have the abundant intellectual society. Then, too, 
we can get a good day school for Randal, and we shall be able 
to see our friends often." 

From amongst the numerous letters of congratulation which 
he received I select one. It is from the late Sir David Gill 
(March 9th, 1892) : 

" I have just heard that you have been elected Adams's suc- 
cessor at Cambridge, and I write at once to congratulate you, 
or rather, to tell you how much I think Cambridge is to be 
congratulated. I did not think they would be able to tempt 
you from Dublin, and I wondered where a suitable man could 
be found. There is a noble transit circle and the makings of 
a grand equatorial, and I think it would have been a thousand 
pities if these had been put into the hands of a man who is 
only a mathematician. Besides all the possibilities which your 
equipment presents, there is a great mass of Adams's unfinished 
work which astronomy stands sorely in need of. 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

"When Darwin was made Plumian Professor I urged him 
to take up the Theory of Jupiter's SatelHtes, and the construction 
of new tables. He began the work, and after labouring for 
some time went to Adams to discuss some of its points with 
him. Adams took him to a closet whence he produced papers 
showing that all Darwin had been working at for a year had 
already been done by himself, and indeed more, so, seeing that 
he was working on ground already occupied, Darwin \s^nt no 

"If Darwin and you, in conjunction with W. G. Adams, 
would take up the editing of J. C. Adams's unpublished papers, 
you would confer a great boon on astronomers, and help also 
to erect a great memorial to your great predecessor. The fact 
of the existence of these papers has deterred many an able young 
man from entering a field of work in which he knew that Adams 
had been working before him. 

" Forgive my presumption in making these suggestions. I 
only make them now because I know that very soon you must 
have completed your working programme, and, if my sugges- 
tion is of any value now it would then be too late because your 
hcmds would be otherwise full." 

In July, 1892, my father was admitted to a Fellowship at 
King's College, Cambridge. A letter to his sister records 
this fact : 

"I went over to King's College, Cambridge, last week, and 
was formally admitted a ' Fellow ' of that august foundation. 
It is truly a grand place, and the reception given to us on all 
hands is the kindest possible. I stayed with the Provost. It 
strikes a Trinity College, Dublin, man as strange that Cam- 
bridge is governed by comparatively young men ! 

"Yes, we did indeed wish much for you. The celebration 
of the Tercentenary of Trinity College, Dublin, was a superb 
function in every way. The presentation of addresses was 
grand! As each continent or nation sent up its representatives 
a few bars of appropriate music, such as ' Yankee Doodle,' etc. , 
stimulated the enthusiasm and the interest. 

" I am to ' sit ' to Miss Purser next month at her request. 
She is to present me to the College to be hung in the club room 
in a valhalla of a few worthies! What between this, and a 
message from Tennyson that he desires me to honour him with 
a visit, my head is turned ! * Is it not pleasant to think we 
shall be within a few hours of each other ? The more I see of 
Cambridge, the more delighted I am at the change for all our 

* My father always regretted that he did not avail himself of this inntation, 
which only reached him indirectly. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

sakes. We have finally decided to bring Willy with us and 
enter him at Cambridge next October. Then there is a capital 
school for Randal which belongs to King's College and is 
primarily for the choir, all of whom are picked boys." 

On December 8th, 1892, the degree of Master of Arts 
(honoris causa) was conferred upon him in the Senate House 
at Cambridge. 

The following speech was delivered by the Public Orator, 
Dr. (now Sir John) Sandys, in presenting Sir Robert Ball for 
the degree : 

"Nuper alterum ex Astronomiae professoribus nostris 
Galilsei in Honorem ad Universitatem Patavinam legatum 
misimus.* Hodie alterum ex eisdem in Senatum nostrum 
honoris causa libenter cooptamus. Fato autem singulari, 
anno in eodem, et Galilsei gloriam et Academiae Dublinensis 
famam ludis saecularibus celebratam vidimus. Ergo hoc 
praesertim die, quo procul in Italia ludi illi, astronomi magni 
in memoriam indicti, sine dubio ad finem felicem perducuntur, 
adsciscere nobis consentaneum est Academias Dublinensis 
astronomum insignem, nuper nobis Neptuni inventoris cele- 
berrimif in loco professorem datum. Praeceptorem igitur, non 
pueritiae tantum, sed etiam juventutis et setatis maturse ingeniis 
feliciter erudiendis aptissimum, animo grato accipimus. Quod 
si prseceptorum nostorum in ordine alii (ut videtur) Mercurii, 
alii Jovis sub sidere nati sunt, virum hunc certe, et eloquentia 
prompta et animo perquam geniali praeditum, sidere sub utroque 
natum fuisse crediderim. Caeli vero inter sidera, praeter Jovis 
satellites olim a Galilaeo ipso primum observatos, nuper satelles 
quintus terris apparuitj : in eodem autem anno (juvat recordari) 
inter tot lumina Academiae, velut orbis quidam caelestis, Jovis 
satelles novus etiam nobis affulsit. 

"Duco ad vos et Societatis Regiae et Collegii Regalis 
socium, equitem insignem, Robertum Stawell Ball." 

Upon arriving at Cambridge he was fired with the idea of 
installing a photographic telescope. Writing to Dr. Rambaut, 
he said : 

"I am half inclined to go in for the photographic doublet. 
I see it could be housed in the fourteen-foot dome on the top of 
the house, or rather, I mean, in a new dome on the same wall. 
I don't think of giving the job to Becket, nor shall I invoke the 

♦ Professor G. H. Darwin. t Professor J. C. Adams. 

X September gth, 1892. 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

aid of Mason Wyse!* At present the little dome is derelict with 
an utterly preposterous telescope of about two inches aperture on 
an English mounting that would carry a lOO-ton gun, the whole 
being rusty and ruinous. The dome, however, runs well and 
goes with a push, but I think I shall try to get a new one." 

Although he began his professional duties in the Michaelmas 
term, 1892, he did not go into residence at the Observatory until 
1893. In a letter to his sister he wrote : 

"To-morrow night we expect to sleep in our new home. A 
beautiful one it is in many respects. Indeed, as every day 
passes, I am more and more thankful for the change we have 
made. You can have no idea how charming is the prospect of 
life here. It seems to me that there are scores of hospitable 
houses open, and genial and pleasant welcomes everywhere. The 
people not too rich. Then we are to have a telephone. Vehicles 
of any kind at the door in a quarter of an hour, shopping and 
all the rest done by telephone! It is connected with the Post 
Office, so that telegrams can be sent all over the country and 
the world from our own hall. There is pleasant society in King's 
College. Indeed, I feel quite at home everywhere now. Small 
incidents of the change loom into importance. When I arrived, 
the twxD things I most appreciated were two pipes, not for 
tobacco, not pipes of port, but just a gas pipe and a water 
pipe, conveying the gas and the liquid of v,hich we were so 
destitute at Dunsink ! " 

The quiet domestic life at Cambridge is fully and charac- 
teristically described to his mother in a letter dated April 23rd, 

" I treated you to such a shabby scrawl last week that I must 
try to make up for it now. 

" I do not see how I can give you a better idea of our life 
than by describing, say, this very day Sunday, how it v^'as 
passed and what we have done. 

"To begin with, it was a glorious morning, and into F.'s 
beautiful room the blessed sunlight streamed from the pretty 
window on the east which looks out on our la\\Ti with a nice 
view to Cambridge. Another flood of light comes from the 
door leading to F.'s little boudoir, where the windows open to 
a balcony whence there is the same charming prospect of 
greenery and the distant Cambridge. Then there is another 
window in the room to the south with the ampelopsis clinging 

* This individual used to efifect occasional repairs at Dunsink. My father 
always said he was employed by the firm of " Botcher & Co." 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

around it. During these lovely days and nights the windows 
are open. We were actually awakened by the cuckoo the other 
day, and can hear the nightingales as we lie! The room itself 
looks nice. All the furniture has been repolished and our maho- 
gany glows like new. . . . But the hour for getting up has 
come. In comes dapper little Bertha with the hot water, and 
presently I take my departure in my dressing-gown and slippers. 
Out along a long passage newly covered with oilcloth I go into 
the new house where, adjoining the bathroom (hot and cold all 
day and night) is my bright little dressing-room. There I find 
Randal in his bed reading a book, with * Smut ' wrapped up in 
a rug beside him. All my old furniture has been repaired and 
polished so that it looks capital, and while I am finishing my 
last touches, the gong rings to tell us that breakfast is on the 
table. Down I go either by the front stairs with its nice new 
carpet, or generally by the back stairs also with a new carpet. 
I forget, indeed, which I used this morning, but when I got 
down, there was the whole hall suffused with the glorious morn- 
ing. I revel in the blessed sunlight. You will remember that 
at Dunsink our hall was rather dark. The hall looks so nice 
with the spick and span new floorcloth and two stands of flowers 
and ferns, and the pretty lamps, etc. Then into breakfast. 
Here the brightness was subdued by the outside blind, one of 
the possessions taken over from Mrs. Adams. The breakfast, 
and indeed all the meals, are managed in the English fashion 
which saves the housekeeper much trouble. Then after break- 
fast I go out for a few minutes into our beautiful shady walks, 
look at the towers of King's in the distance, and wonder what 
in the world I can have done to have deserved all the blessedness 
that has been poured on me! There is not in Cambridge, or in 
England, or in the world, I believe, so charming a position for 
a man of science! However, to my story. The time goes on 
and at ten off we start for chapel. We walked to-day. Had 
we elected to drive it was only necessary to go to the tele- 
phone and there to order what we want from a one-hoss-shay to 
a coach and six. But all are in good walking trim, so off we 
set, first for a few yards through our shrubberies sweet with 
flowiers, and then down the long trim avenue to the Madingley 
Road. Then we turn to the left, passing a few fields, then the 
houses of a neighbour or two, and in a quarter of an hour we 
are at the 'Backs.' 'We' means F. and self, and the young 
people. Then along the Backs till we come to the lovely gate 
of Clare, up through the avenue of limes, just out to-day in 
their exquisite green, and then on to the bridge of Clare. Here 
we stop for a few minutes to enjoy one of the most exquisite 
views in England. In front palatial Clare. To the left along 
the River Cam we see Trinity and St. John's ; to the right the 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

glories of King's ; then over the bridge, everything looking its 
loveliest on this spring day, through the Halls of Clare, and 
then by a sharp turn to the right, through a wicket, we emerge 
under the shadow of King's chapel, one of the great glories of 
Christendom! Here we have still a quarter of an hour. I walk 
on ahead to put on my surplice and M.A. Cambridge hood, and 
then I join the party below and we enter the chapel. It is 
indeed a poem in stone. The lofty roof and the exquisite old 
stained glass windows through which the sun is streaming make 
it simply enchanting. I have my special stall in a most august 
place in the church. The service is intoned and choral, all 
nicely done, no sermon, so in little more than an hour we are 
out. Then, as it is the first Sunday in term, there are always 
kindly greetings and inquiries. We chat for a few minutes with 
the Vice-Provost and the Tutor and a few others, and then we 
go up to W.'s rooms to inspect them since their renovation. He 
has a glorious look out over the lawn to the river. We have 
handed over to him tables and various pictures and a chiffonier 
and other matters, so that now he looks really very smart, and 
then we walk towards home, R. having elected to stay behind 
with W. to come over a little later. I forgot to say that R. has 
a special seat in the chapel in connection with his school. We 
are back about one. Then I went for the next hour into F.'s 
little boudoir, where is an ample sofa for my behoof, and she 
and I read for an hour till lunch at two. W. had turned up 
by this time wnth George Loane, a nice fellow, indeed he is, and 
then after dinner the young people went their way on a ramble 
about the place. F. and I went ours; we looked through the 
gardens at the beautifully trained fruit trees covered with 
blossom, we looked at the great box trees and the big Welling- 
tonia, and the great monkey puzzle and many another interesting 
tree and plant. We went into the greenhouses, bright and 
fragrant, and then into the vinery where already there are 
clusters of miniature grapes. Then we walked round our shady 
walk, and had just come in when Major MacMahon and Mr. 
Larmor were announced. These are two great mathematicians 
both of whom I knew before. That led to a pleasant little 
gathering, and tea on the lawn. Presently they left, and then 
after another hour's reading I stole into my study, where I am 
now writing with a portable gas lamp, which is a great bless- 
ing. F. is opposite to me reading one of the volumes of the 
' Encyclopaedia Britannica.' I have just bought twenty-five 
volumes in Russian leather. It is now g P.M. R. has only just 
gone to bed, and the young people with Mr. Harmer are in the 

" F. began to pay off her scores of visits this week. She had 
an open carriage for three hours on Friday and polished off I 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

know not how many, as they were all out, and no wonder, this 
lovely weather. Yesterday she and I started off and we walked 
right to the other side of Cambridge and back again, and paid 
three visits to Sir George and Lady Stokes, Professor J. J. 
Thomson, and to two wonderful widow ladies, Mrs. Lewis and 
Mrs. Gibson, who have just returned from an expedition on 
camels to Mount Sinai, where they have been studying ancient 
manuscripts in a monastery ! They have discovered a new manu- 
script of the Gospels. They delighted the monks by prattling 
to them in modern Greek. They can also talk Arabic, Syriac, 
Armenian, and I know not what other tongues. 

"From all these various matters you will infer that we are 
getting along here, and so indeed we are. I feel I can say as 
Brinkley said, that I may 

"Bless my STARS." 

He wrote again on May 7th : 

"Many thanks for your letter. I had such a pleasant ac- 
count from L. Steele of his visit to you. We have now the 
pleasure of expecting Amelia on Monday week. She will see 
Cambridge at its best. It looks more lovely every day as the 
trees get brighter. We have torrents of visitors, three or four 
sets every day. To-day brought us Admiral McClintock and 
his daughter! They were staying at our Provost's, whose wife 
is a grandniece of Sir John Franklin, and she has kept up with 
the McClintocks ever since. He was much interested in a chat 
about old friends. 

"Another visitor to-day was a friend of mine and a brother- 
fellow of King's, Professor Middleton. He received this morn- 
ing the intelligence that he is to succeed Sir Cunliffe Owen as 
director of the South Kensington Museum. Val will be inter- 
ested in this. He is an extremely nice man, greatly respected 
and loved here, and will be much missed when he moves to 
London. He has just married, and his wife will dignify the 
halls of South Kensington. Last night we dined at the Pro- 
vost's to meet Admiral McClintock. To-day we met Mr. 
Leonard Courtney and Sir John Gorst. In fact we are in the 
full tide of life. Young and old seem to enjoy it thoroughly 
and realise the advantages by which we are surrounded." 

And on May 13th he wrote : 

"We have been going on here as well as possible. Who was 
the mendacious person who said that the English people were 
cold and stiff? They have, at all events, taken to us most 
kindly and warmly, and nothing could be pleasanter. I feel at 
home here already to an extent I never could have expected. As 
the Vice-Provost of King's said to me, ' You have taken to Cam- 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

bridge like a duck to water.' It suits me perfectly. The 
academic life is what I like and am fitted for. We have had 
certain dinner parties, and there are others in prospect. There 
is a wonderful charm in this abundance of intellectual and 
kindly society. 

" Did you hear that I have been invited as an honoured guest 
to the dinner of the Society of Authors ? All the great writers 
of the day in history or science or romance will be there, includ- 
ing such notabilities as Lord Kelvin. Is it not an honour even 
to be asked to be present, but what will you say when you hear 
that the chair is to be taken by Sir Robert Ball ? Think of that ! 
Such a recognition as that has indeed startled me. You cannot 
think what offers I have had to go on a lecturing tour round 
the world. I have been offered a fortune. Of course, it is out 
of the question to think of it at present. But if some time I 
could give up a year to it I might. I could then retire for the 
rest of my life. Perhaps I may later on. 

"Another proposal has been made which I can and shall 
accept, as it suits my tastes perfectly. It is that I shall prepare 
for the Cambridge University Press a treatise on the advanced 
and difficult parts of mathematical astronomy. I have often 
wished to give my mathematics full scope but never could do so 
heretofore, for such a book would not pay. Now, however, as 
the University will pay for the book and assume the whole 
responsibility I shall write it with all my heart. It will be most 
useful in connection with my University lectures. There is 
nothing which has occurred for many a long day which has 
given me so much satisfaction. 

" Last week I went to ' town ' (that is what we call London 
here) for the conversazione at the Royal Society. There were 
troops of friends there, and many kindly greetings. Last week 
I wrote a letter to Sir Andrew Clark to tell him that the year had 
now elapsed since my visit to him. During this time I have not 
had one headache worth mentioning in comparison with the awful 
headaches I have suffered from for so many years. I cannot tell 
how indebted I am to his advice for this blessed change." 

On May 28th he wrote to his mother : 

" Still the visitors are pouring in, and the invitations too. 
We seem to have troops of acquaintances now. It is often not 
a little puzzling to know them separately. However, they make 
allowances for new-comers. I think we have lost all feeling of 
shyness and strangeness. Is it not curious that I should now be 
thrown up against my old friend or playmate, at all events, in 
Rutland Square in the days of my childhood — Jebb ? I was 
asked the other night at a party whether I knew Sir Richard 

K 145 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

Jebb. ' Yes,' I replied, ' I knew him before anyone at this table 
knew him.' He quite remembers our old acquaintance. 

" But mentioning Jebb reminds me that I made my debut in 
the political world on Tuesday. You will see about it in the 
paper which I send herewith. They wanted me to take a more 
prominent place than I did, but I could not undertake to pre- 
pare a speech when I had so much to do. The undergraduates 
w^re rather disturbed by some of the opposite party, so that I 
cannot say things went on smoothly. Then after the meeting 
was over there was a torchlight procession through the town and 
fireworks. They were going to burn Gladstone in eihgy, and 
sent up to Whiteley's — who undertakes to provide everything — 
for the effigy, but he was for once unequal to the occasion. I 
also enclose you the ' Hymn to the Lowndean Professor.' It is 
very clever, but perhaps you are not fresh enough in your Euclid 
to take it in. Please send it back. 

"You would be delighted to see the flowers in Cambridge! 
The window sills in glorious King's are all ablaze with gera- 
niums, nasturtiums, and lobelia. Indeed, in the matter of 
flowers and greenery Cambridge is enchanting. Every house has 
its nice bit of bright garden, even in the middle of the town. 
There is hardly a spot, perhaps not one, from which trees cannot 
be seen and the lawns are delightful. 

" But you /tave been going it in Dublin ! It seems that the 
inhabitants have nothing to do but to get up tremendous bazaars 
and then spend oceans of money in them. Where does all the 
money come from in that distressful country ? 

" I have at this moment no fewer than three books on hand, 
not to mention all sorts of other work." 

The following letter to his mother (November 19th, 1893) 
gives some idea of his busy life : 

"We are getting on merrily here. Perhaps my diary for the 
next four weeks may assure you. Here it is : 

Nov. 13. Lecture at London Institution. 

14. Audit dinner at King's. 

15. Lecture at Manchester. 

16. Young people's dinner party of sixteen at home. 

17. Dine with Benchers, Lincoln's Inn. 

18. Dine with Public Orator, Cambridge. 

19. Sunday — quiet at home. 

20. Lecture at Bow. 

21. Dine with Mr. Dale. 

22. Lecture at Birkbeck Institute. 

23. Dine at Caius College. 

24. Lecture at Anerley. 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

Nov. 25. Dinner party of sixteen here. 

26. Sunday — quiet at home. 

27. Lecture at Tunbridge Wells. 

28. Lecture in London. 

29. Concert here (to which / must go). 

30. Dine at Royal Society annual feast. 
Dec. I. Lecture at Wimbledon. 

2. Concert here. (/ am not going.) 

3. Sunday — quiet at home. 

4. Dinner party of sixteen here. 

5. Actually nothing whatever! 

6. Founders' dinner at King's. 

7. Lecture at Barnsley. 

8. Lecture at Wimbledon. 

9. Dine with Mrs. Lewis. And 
10. Sunday — quiet at home. 

So there is four weeks for you! Even in Dublin I don't think 
you can beat that ! " 

Visitors to the Cambridge Observatory will have noticed a 
building on the left-hand side at the top of the avenue. This 
contains a curious telescope which was erected during my 
father's time. An interesting account of the preliminaries to 
the erection of this telescope is contained in a letter to Dr. 
Rambaut (January 4th, 1897) : 

"Common was down here the other day giving us another 
lift about our photographic telescope. Grubb has made some 
progress, and we have now got our designs for the building into 
shape. I can't say that I am by any means free from anxiety 
on the matter. Gill scouts the whole thing, but I have the 
greatest reliance on Common's mechanical skill, and he seems 
to have no doubt that the thing will succeed. Common told 
me that he is now prepared to make mirrors for any astronomers 
who want them, charging them merely cost prices. Did you 
know that his method of testing a flat mirror is a purely 
mechanical one ? That is to say, having first prepared by 
infinite pains a single plate which will stand Lord Rayleigh's 
excellent test of covering it with a very thin plate of water he 
immerses it in a vessel and then tests the uniformity of the 
thin plate by colours. He employs this for reference. He uses 
a spherometer which will read to the three hundred thousandth 
of an inch, and adjusting this on his standard plate he is able 
to work up the plate to correspond to it. It used to be an article 
of Lord Rosse's faith that the ultimate figure of the mirror was 
too refined for any mechanical tests, but this. Common says, is 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

not the case. A mirror which possesses errors so large that the 
spherometer referred to will exhibit them conspicuously, may 
still be perfect for all practical purposes of astronomy." 

These letters serve to show that he was prepared to like 
his new surroundings, and it may truly be said that his affec- 
tion for the University, her colleges and her professors steadily 
increased during the twenty-two years he lived at the observa- 
tory. In the midst of his mathematics and his astronomy he 
found time to take an active part in the government of the 
University. He served on various syndicates, and was an 
ex officio member of several committees of selection for pro- 
fessorships. In 1902 he was elected to the Council of the 
Senate, and in 1906 he was re-elected for a further period of 
four years. He greatly appreciated this preferment, and was 
constant in attendance at meetings of the "Cabinet of the 

Writing to his sister (December 15th, 1902), he said : 

" Did I tell you that I have been put on the Council here, 
an august body which manages the whole University ? The 
work is exceedingly interesting, lying as it does at the very heart 
of University matters. There is nothing of importance which 
does not come before us. I am appointed for four years, and 
whether they will put me on again at the end of that time, or 
whether I would care to go on again, remains to be seen. There 
are four representatives of the professors on the Council, and 
three of them are Irishmen!" 

He was always immersed in affairs at Cambridge, and was 
frequently invited to present the prizes at various schools. On 
February 19th, 1900, he wrote to Mr. Steele : 

"We have had all sorts of things going on here. The other 
night I was on the barrel beating the big patriotic drum for the 
Volunteers, to an undergraduate mass who yelled their sympathy 
and approval ! 

" To-night I am to distribute the prizes at a girls' school in 
the Guild Hall. I am to make a speech on goodness only knows 
what, but I understand that I must refer to Ruskin, the May 
Queen, the advantages of cookery lessons, female franchise, and 
the merits of higher grade schools for the daughters of college 
bedmakers! Then I am to give a lecture on behalf of 'District 
Nursing' as per enclosed! The theatre is expected to be filled, 
and phenomenal receipts are anticipated. This, too, in spite 
of the fact that the faith-healing party is prominent in Cam- 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

bridge. They now hold Sunday meetings to cry ' down with 
priests, doctors, and all other embodiments of superstition and 

"P.S. — I am bursting — just bursting (2,000 lbs. on the square 
inch) for a good talk ! " 

He frequently attended public dinners in London. Here is 
an account written to his mother of a dinner at Lincoln's Inn 
(November 19th, 1893) • 

" I was in such grand company on Friday ! There was a 
great legal party at Lincoln's Inn and twelve guests, including 
Mr. Gladstone, the Prince of Wales, Mr. Balfour, the Prince of 
Siam, Sir Robert Ball, and a few others. It was delightful. 
Everyone was so kind. They all seemed to know me so well. I 
was received by Sir Charles Russell, while the Solicitor-General 
and Mr. Napier Higgins were told off to see to my particular 
welfare. I did noi have the honour of a chat with H.R.H. nor 
with Mr. Gladstone. Benchers and their guests sat at the high 
table, 300 barristers were in the body of the hall, and the 
students were in the gallery. Nearly all say they are so glad 
W. is to enter there as a pupil. Two of the Benchers are 
to sign his papers, and two others of them have given me a 
general invitation always to stay at their houses when I go to 

The following stories and extracts from letters received from 
my father during the Cambridge period have been contributed 
by a friend : 

"We (Sir Robert and I) were taking a delightful walk 
through the Fen country. We arrived at a little inn which 
bears the sign, * Five miles from Anywhere. No hurry,' ex- 
ceptionally thirsty. We could get only half-bottles of soda- 
water. Apropos of nothing, I asked him if he had ever drawn 
up a ' homicidal list ' of people he would shoot at sight. * Yes, 
certainly,' was the reply; 'and I have headed my list with the 
inventor of half-bottles of soda-water ! ' 

"We were talking of someone whose powers of digestion 
were exceptional. Sir Robert said : ' I wonder if he ever tried 
padlocks? ' 

" I went with him to a hairdresser's in Newry. The pro- 
prietor, a German, greeted him effusively as an old client with 
the words, ' I am ver' glad to see you, Mr. Johnson. It is 
long time I have seen you ; I have seen you last in Belfast. It 
is ver' pleasant.' R. listened to this and many more remi- 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

niscences, and said that he too was glad to meet him. 
'But,' he added, ' I think I ought to tell you I am not Mr. 

"He told me of another visit to a barber, when he was 
informed that his hair was getting very thin, and the barber 
recommended the use of a certain lotion. 

"Sir Robert : ' I bought a bottle of that lotion when I was 
here last ' 

" Barber (interrupting) : ' On looking closer, sir, I see signs 
of improvement. The new hair is beginning to appear.' 

"Sir Robert : * But I never used it I ' 

"He once met a lady in the carriage of a Swiss mountain 
railway who was extremely nervous about the ascent. By way 
of comforting her, he said : * Well, madam, there are four 
things which must give way before we are hurled to de- 
struction, and so far only three have been known to fail. 
When the fourth goes, you won't have time to say your 
prayers I ' 

"Talking of a certain professor whose energies as a college 
tutor were not remarkable, he said : ' I believe he finds it almost 
impossible to do any work between meals.' 

"He spoke of another professor who was deplorably igno- 
rant of any subject outside his own. Going one day to a college 
library, he said to the clerk : ' Would you direct me to some 
book which would explain to me clearly the difference between 
longitude and latitude, as there seems to me to be an unneces- 
sary amount of complication about the matter ! ' 

" He once told me of a scientific meeting where the question 
arose as to why the woodcock, which starts in a bee line south 
in its migration from Norway, should arrive on the west, and 
not on the east, coast of Ireland. The explanation suggested 
by a learned geologist present was that the diurnal revolution 
of the earth during the bird's passage had brought the west 
coast under it by the time it had reached Ireland ! 

"He spoke of one of his cousins, who, in his youth, was 
fond of the wildest pranks and adventures, but was nevertheless 
of a religious turn of mind. When discussing his future 
career, this boy told his parents that the job he felt best qualified 
to fill was that of chaplain on board a pirate ! 

"Sir Robert also told me of an old friend of his who was 
always sceptical about the reputed wealth of the Irish heiress. 

Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

* In fact,' said Sir Robert, 'he had invented a formula for 
reducing an Irish marriage portion to its proper dimensions. 
It was : ' Take a nought off and divide by two.' 

"With reference to the comparative smallness of the popu- 
lation of the earth in relation to its vast area, he said : ' The 
whole population of the earth might have comfortable seating 
accommodation in the Isle of Wight.' 

"We were talking of the duration of the coal supply. He 
said : ' People say that when the coalfields are exhausted we 
can use electricity, forgetting that its production depends upon 
the coal supply. You might as well say that if the horse that 
draws the canal boat drops dead, we could still pull it along 
with the rope ! ' 

"On one occasion he took part in a discussion on mathe- 
matics in its relation to statistics. Amongst other things 
considered was the number of barrels of beer of a well-known 
brand consumed annually. He mentioned that on one occa- 
sion all calculations proved erroneous. In no way could the 
brewer e;cplain the increase in consumption during a particular 
month, until at last it was pointed out to him that the birthday 
of a famous temperance reformer fell during the period in 
question ! 

"I once asked permission to give his name as a reference 
when I was endeavouring to make certain lecture engagements 
for myself. Sir Robert wrote in reply : 

" ' You can, of course, refer to me when you are writing, and 
if they apply to me you will get such a character for a lecturer, 
that even though you were directly inspired at the supreme mo- 
ment by the angel Gabriel, you would create bitter disappoint- 
ment, such would be the expectations that will be raised by what 
it will be my duty to mention ! ' 

" In reference to a lecture which I had given he wrote : 

" ' I knew your lecture would be a success ; the very fact that 
you were anxious about it was to me an augury that it would be 
so, I often think of a remark I once heard David Plunket make, 
to the effect that all his greatest and most successful oratorical 
efforts had been preceded by many hours of the most dismal 
anxiety and painful forebodings of failure. Once you reach 
the callous state of a certain old veteran in the lecturing line, 
of whom you have possibly heard, the nervousness and anxiety 
are things unknown ; but it is very doubtful how far this is 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

altogether an unmixed blessing so far as the audience are con- 
cerned, however greatly it may contribute to the lecturer's peace 
of mind.* 

"With reference to the appointment of a certain man to a 
professorship, on the ground that he had ' teaching experi- 
ence,' which his rival had not, he wrote: 

" ' Perhaps your friend has had teaching experience. This is 
the argument dear to the official mind, and conclusive. Just 
forty-five years ago they refused to give me a professorship at 
Cork, because I had no ' experience ' of lecturing. May the 
Lord forgive them ! ' 

"With reference to Boswell's ' Life of Johnson ' he wrote : 

'"1 never till the present time read Boswell's Johnson. It is 
one of the greatest literary pleasures I have ever had ; but I 
never find out these things till a million years after everyone 

"As to the appointment of Professor Whittaker as 
Astronomer Royal of Ireland he wrote : 

" ' Now let me commend to your most special and careful con- 
sideration my very great friend Whittaker. He is the only man 
I know of who can properly succeed Joly. And the place will 
suit him in every way. He is a keen gardener and a man who 
has infinite capacity for making things go. Then as to his 
scientific attainments, he knows more of the mathematical part of 
astronomy than anyone else in Great Britain, or if you like to 
add Europe, Asia, Africa and America, I won't demur. A 
modest, charming man in every way. He has already made 
one discovery which the greatest mathematician of the last two 
centuries would be proud to have placed to his credit.' * 

"From a letter inviting me to join him in London : 

" ' But perhaps you will have to remain at home to learn Irish ! 
I hear it is proposed that all the lectures in the National Univer- 
sity are to be given in Irish, and that the Pons Asinorum must, 
in future, be demonstrated only with Book of Kells' capitals on 
the figures ! * 

"In praise of the Royal Dublin Society (written from 
Cambridge) : 

"' Perhaps since my residence at a distance I see the R.D.S. 
in a more just perspective than was possible when I was daily 
passing through it. I was always attached to it, but now I see 

* See p. 164, post. 

Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

it as a society unique in the kingdom, steadily pursuing on the 
very largest scale a policy of the greatest beneficence and utility. 
Long may it flourish.'" 

He was asked by Mr. Willett to express an opinion on the 
Daylight Saving scheme. He used to say with reference to 
this proposal that the astronomer ought obviously to oppose 
any scheme which would necessarily shorten his hours of re- 
search ! However, he did write the following paragraph, to 
which prominence was given in one of Mr. Willett's published 
pamphlets : 

" Which is the better for our waking hours, glorious sunshine, 
which costs us nothing, or expensive and incomparably less 
efficient artificial light ? Only perverted habits could make us 
hesitate as to the answer to this question. The admirable 
scheme of Mr. Willett will rescue 210 hours of our waking life 
from the gloom of man's puny efforts at illumination, and sub- 
stitute for it — sunbeams. There are no difficulties connected 
with the scheme which could weigh for a moment against the 
advantages of its adoption. Meridians were made for man, not 
man for meridians." 

Sir Joseph Larmor has written as follows concerning my 
father's work at Cambridge : 

"In 1892, Ball migrated to Cambridge to become Lowndean 
Professor of Astronomy and Geometry, in succession to the 
great dynamical astronomer John Couch Adams. Though 
his appointment cannot be said to have been anticipated by 
mathematicians at Cambridge, who were hardly aware that 
he was available for the office, Ball's reputation had preceded 
him. In those days, under the influence of Thomson and Tait, 
Stokes, Clerk Maxwell, and other mathematical physicists, 
mathematical studies at the English University were still cast in 
an objective mould. Instead of forming an isolated abstract 
discipline, mathematics was regarded as the key to exact know- 
ledge in all those branches of science which admit of quantita- 
tive treatment, and it received a rich reward from them in turn 
by way of reaction. Applied mathematics was studied mainly 
in its relation to Natural Philosophy, to use a British designa- 
tion which has persisted since Newton's treatise ' Philosophise 
Naturalis Principia Mathematica.' It had been recognised 
that mathematics had no great chance of popularity if its 
development did not interact with some of the objective natural 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

sciences such as astronomy, optics, or electromagnetics. As 
a result of this tendency, the ' Theory of Screws ' had already 
become known at Cambridge, and especially welcome from 
the feature that the arguments were clothed in a charming 
combination of geometry and dynamics. Long after he came 
to Cambridge, when his activities were thought to be fully 
occupied in other directions, the subject continued to occupy 
his attention ; and his friends received at intervals substantial 
quarto papers excerpted from the Transactions of the Royal 
Irish Academy, with the title ' Tenth ' or other ' Memoir on 
the Theory of Screws.' 

"His predecessor at Dunsink, Sir W. R. Hamilton, in his 
later years, had become, in a sense, obsessed by his own 
fundamental invention of Quaternions, and had spent much 
time in translating all known mathematics into the forms of 
that calculus, incorporating fresh discoveries which suggested 
themselves as he went along. It was even said that he would 
sometimes begin his Statutory lectures on astronomy in Trinity 
College, Dublin, by announcing that, in order to have a proper 
conception of the beauties of mathematical astronomy, a just 
apprehension of the Calculus of Quaternions was essential, 
and after this the subject of astronomy might be no more heard 
of. In a lesser degree it may perhaps be said to have become 
fundamental in Ball's mind (though of late not insisted upon 
in public with the enthusiasm of earlier years) that the general 
spacial relations of dynamical science required for their adequate 
expression the imagery of the ' Theory of Screws.' He often 
announced courses of lectures on the subject; and his work on 
it was brought to an appropriate end by a monumental treatise 
(544 pp. royal 8vo) published by the University Press. In 
contrast with the earlier book, which evdry mathematician 
could find time to appreciate, this later volume is in the 
main for the specialist. 

"In the early days of the ' Theory of Screws ' Ball had made 
the acquaintance of W. K. Clifford at meetings of the British 
Association. They were drawn together by a common interest 
in geometrical forms, including non-Euclidean geometry; and 
both had a play of humour and frolic which made them 
for some years main upholders of the lighter side of the 
activities of that scientific body. About the same time he 
had inoculated his friend Professor J. D. Everett with 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

the ' Geometry of Screws,' to the great advantage of that study. 
I can remember an oracular announcement which he made 
to Everett to the effect that ' The Theory of Screws is now 
all done with ; it is quite obsolete ; it is all going over into 
non-Euclidean space.' I also remember him recounting, in 
more serious vein, how, at a meeting of the British Associa- 
tion in the 'seventies, there turned up a young geometer from 
the University of Erlangen, Felix Klein, already a leader in 
the German mathematical world. Klein told them about 
Pliicker's linear complex, and certain recent developments in 
the fascinating field of geometrical relations which it involved, 
a field in which Klein had first shown his own genius. Ball 
described how he and Clifford captured Klein after the meet- 
ing, and sat up half the night exchanging ideas, the interview 
culminating with the impatient and admiring complaint that 
there was positively nothing they could tell him that Klein 
did not seem to know about already. 

"I recollect an opinion expressed by the late Professor 
George Chrystal, of Edinburgh, who had every right to be 
heard on such matters, in the sense that, whatever might be 
the Facts as to priorities, there could be no question but that 
Ball's contributions to the ' theory of Screws * were tarred with 
the brush of genius. 

"As to the relation of Ball's work to that of the more 
abstract geometers, reference may be made to the remarks of 
a high authority, Mr. G. T. Bennett, in an obituary notice 
published in the * Proceedings of the Royal Society.' 

"Ball's advanced lectures at Cambridge were not limited to 
geometry. He liked to expound at first hand the great French 
mathematical astronomers such as Laplace and Lagrange. In 
so doing he followed a tradition long obser\'ed at Dublin 
University, which was perhaps the reason of much of the 
success of the Irish mathematical school. 

"A treatise on Spherical Astronomy was the last of his 
mathematical works. When the book appeared, in 1908, 
some of his friends were struck with wonder that the writer, 
whose sparkling touch pervaded his fascinating books on de- 
scriptive astronomy, and whose severer geometrical fancy ran 
through the 'Screws,' should have produced such a blunt, 
business-like book, almost forbidding in its strict attention to 
the often tedious routines of astronomical reductions — a book 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

which rivalled in dryness the most unemotional treatises of 
its class. 

"When Ball emerged from his abstract labours — studies 
which apparently came very easy to him — he took delight in 
assisting generally to ' make things go.' Thus he was for 
some time chairman of the Conservative organisation in the 
University; but he refused to be beguiled into Parliamentary 
service. In a conversatian with him on the need for an 
edition of 'Select Papers of Sir W. R. Hamilton,' at about 
the time when a concatenation of uncontrollable circumstances 
had landed me in the political arena, I remember his gentle 
rebuke that he would much rather see me prepare such an 
edition than become involved in the distractions of Parliament I 

"A full and brilliant life was destined to end in a long and 
helpless illness. But the interests that were so vivid remained 
to the end, and when he could no longer take any part in con- 
versation, it was an obvious pleasure to him to hear about what 
was going on in the University in which he had played a 
prominent and genial part, and in the larger scientific and 
social world without." 

The rest of this chapter consists, in the main, of letters 
written or received during the Cambridge period. 

In January, 1894, he had two unusual visitors at the 
Observatory. It appears that Mr. (now Sir George) Alexander 
was about to produce The Masqueraders, by Henry Arthur 
Jones, at the St. James's Theatre. The cast included an 
astronomer, and part of the scene was laid at an observatory. 

Writing to Mrs. Millington, he said : 

"You would be amused to hear who were here to lunch to-day, 
and still more to know the object of their visit ! Mr. Jones, the 
playwright, and Mr. George Alexander, the actor, want to see 
the inside of an observatory, for they are going to represent it 
in the scene of a new play to be called, ' The Masqueraders.* 
Did you hear of the great fame John Todhunter has obtained 
from his play, ' The Black Cat ' ? " 

His love for Christmas is shown in a letter to his sister, 
Mrs. Millington (December 26th, 1896) : 

"I am still fond of dear old Christmas! I listen for the joy 
bells, and even I was touched by the music in King's. The 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

choir is certainly lovely. We had unfortunately only a small 
party at the Christmas table, for Minnie was in bed with a cold, 
but, by timely measures, she seems all right this evening. We 
have a young American here. Like most of his countrymen he 
is much better read than the analogous youth of our country, 
and, moreover, he is not a bit shy, so that he is a very pleasant 
addition. . . ." 

He was intimately acquainted with Professor Charles Jasper 
Joly, F.R.S., Astronomer Royal of Ireland, and with John Joly, 
F.R.S., Professor of Geology in the University of Dublin. 

Of Professor Charles Joly, who died early in 1906, he wrote 
to Mrs. Millington on January 6th, 1906 : 

"Joly was my intimate correspondent for ten years or so, 
and I have a wonderful series of his letters almost all complete 
(over 100). They mostly relate to mathematics. It is a griev- 
ous blow to me. I prized his friendship and warm intellectual 
sympathy more than I can express, and I often thought (selfishly, 
perhaps) that as he was twenty-four years my junior, I might 
look forward to enjoying our friendly intercourse during the 
rest of my life. As is so often the case, I am now regretting 
many lost opportunities. 

"I have derived so much benefit in every way from his know- 
ledge and sympathy. We were engaged, in a way, almost alone 
among English mathematicians, in the pursuit of Quaternions and 
the Theory of Screws, and for many months back I had been 
most diligently studying his writings so as to bring myself up 
to the point where our correspondence and interchange of views 
might be still more fruitful. We had as our special object to 
make the xvx)nderful life work of Sir William Hamilton better 
known, and now alas! . . . ." 

He wrote to Mrs. Joly on January 23rd, 1906 : 

"It was always such a pleasure to us to think of you at 
Dunsink in the place we loved so much, and I cannot tell you 
what a happiness and interest and enjoyment to me his [Mr. 
Joly's] delightful letters have been for the last ten years. I 
have always preserved them carefully, and now treasure them 
more highly than ever. They began about scientific matters, and 
though science was always present, I have in the later letters 
abundant illustrations of his richly stored mind. WTiat wonder- 
ful ability he had! The greatest difficulties to most of us 
seemed always easy to him. I had been so looking forward 
to the renewal of our letters, and now, alas! The greatest 
heights he would have reached easily if it had not been that he 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

was cut off so early. His splendid devotion to the memory of 
Hamilton will bear excellent fruit for countless years to come. 

" Trinity College can ill afford to lose her most illustrious 

"I am only anxious to know in what way I can, now or at 
any future time, be of any service to you or yours." 

I have found a great many of the hundred letters referred 
to in the letter to Mrs. Millington. Most of them relate to 
higher mathematics, and are too abstruse for these pages. I 
have, however, selected a few which show that the minds of 
the two astronomers were ever running on the same great 

In a letter to Professor Joly, dated January gth, 1900, he 
wrote : 

" I am so glad to hear you say that you refer to the extra- 
ordinary accuracy of Hamilton's work and the unsparing pains 
he took. By the way, is there not some story or other to the 
effect that he walked one night the whole way from Dunsink to 
the printing office in Dublin in order to get a semi-colon changed 
into a colon ? This will at least serve to illustrate the unspar- 
ing pains which you refer to. I greatly admire also your reserve 
in what you say as to modern developments, and as to the ex- 
treme caution needful in modifying or improving the Calculus. 
I am inclined to think you are very wise in not printing a biblio- 
graphy. There are always such a lot of rubbishy papers and 
futile discussions which, though they may not be actual paradox, 
are still unworthy of being admitted, and yet, as you say, a 
hornet's nest is aroused. The quoting and reference now so 
extensively practised seems to be the bane of all literature. We 
are always told the Bible is the highest type of literary perform- 
ance, and among its other excellences we don't find Joshua quot- 
ing Moses, or St. Paul expressing his acknowledgments to St. 
Luke. I don't doubt that Laplace's plan of ignoring everybody 
was the proper course for a Laplace. You will, I am sure, let 
me know when you are here, for both my wife and I hope to 
see Mrs. Joly this time." 

On October 15th, 1900, he wrote to Professor Joly : 

" I feel almost like the people who swore they would neither 
eat nor drink till they killed Paul ; my object, however, not 
being the murder of an apostle, but the discovery of what is 
the real inwardness of the co-reciprocal screw system. Like you, 
I long to see such a system, and I know the sight would be wx>rth 
seeing, but there are difficulties that for the life of me I cannot 
conquer at present, but I am sticking into it morning, noon and 

Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

night, and have certainly struck into some pretty and pleasant 
by-paths though I have not yet hit the main high road." 

He also discussed educational questions with Professor Joly. 
On January 2nd, 1903, he wrote from Cambridge : 

"The forces over here are marshalling on both sides for the 
contemplated attack on Classics as a compulsory subject. The 
Syndicate has been appointed (but not without a struggle) to 
consider the subject and report in the May term. I find it very 
hard to make up my mind on the matter. However, fortunately, 
I have not yet any occasion for doing so, but the report of the 
Syndicate will come before the Council in the first instance, and 
then we shall be in for a jolly fight. The Senate will probably 
not accept any change, for many will vote non placet because 
they think the proposal goes too far (whatever it may be), while 
still m.ore will vote non -placet because they think it does not 
go far enough. This place has the most perfect democratic 
government I have ever heard of. The youngest man in the 
place, if he has a little resolution united to ability, carries as 
much weight, and often more, than the most hoary-headed sage 
of three score and ten. 

"I am so glad to hear the Quaternions are under way in the 
printers' hands. More power! I have banished all Screw temp- 
tations at present and am squaring up to my book on spherical 
astronomy ! " 

The references in this letter to "compulsory classics" are 
interesting. It is clear that in 1903 he had not made up his 

I am in a position to state, however, that, notwithstanding 
his early dislike for Greek and Latin, my father never voted 
for their abolition from the Cambridge curriculum. His view, 
often expressed verbally to me, was : " I should be glad to 
support the abolition of compulsory classics if I were satisfied 
that subjects of equal educational value could be found." 

His love for mathematics and intense enthusiasm for the 
works of the great men Lagrange and Laplace often caused 
him to write delightful letters to those who were able to share 
his interest. From one of many letters to his son Robert on 
this and kindred subjects the following may be quoted : 

" My lectures on the Planetary theory are in full swing now, 
and it takes me all my time and brains (and would take more 
of the latter, if I had them) to do justice to this subject, which 
is in truth one of the most magnificent intellectual achievements 
ever made by man. It is impossible to describe the beauty of 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

Lagrange's immortal theorems. {Here follow several pages of 
mathematics.) If Jupiter were simply reversed in his track, 
but every other circumstance of the orbit was left unchanged, 
all the guarantees for the permanence of the solar system would 
be gone ! This is just one of the points established by beautiful 
mathematical reasoning," 

Upon the discovery of radium the Lowndean Professor im- 
mediately began to consider the place which this new element 
occupied in the universe. On October i8th, 1903, he wrote 
to Professor Joly : 

"Have you seen radium? It certainly gets over the greatest 

of scientific difficulties, viz. the question of sun-heat. The sun's 
heat cannot have lasted over 20,000,000 of years if it is due to 
contraction. But the geologists would have, say, 200,000,000. 
Now the discrepancy vanishes if the sun consists in any con- 
siderable part of radium, or something that possesses the like 
properties. It is a most instructive discovery. I feel it a re- 
lief, in the same way as I have often done when some apparent 
contradiction in mathematics has been happily elucidated. It 
seems now that the moon must have been appreciably nearer 
within geological times, and that the huge tides must have been 
responsible for the early stratification of rocks." 

In May, 1899, the Cambridge University Press undertook 
the publication of "A Treatise on the Theory of Screws." 
This appeared in due course. Let me quote from a letter written 
to my father by Dr. Johnstone Stoney (May 7th, 1900) : 

" I warmly congratulate you on having got through the labour 
involved in your publication in full of your great work on 
Screws. It is truly a magnum opus, and the fundamental con- 
ception which you have followed up with such success strikes the 
mind as one of the most elegant in the whole range of geometry 
— or rather of kinematics. I shall value much, and on more 
than one ground, the copy which you have sent me." 

In the same year he had some correspondence with his old 
friend Mr. Monck about the appearance of meteorites. He 
wrote to Mr. Monck as follows on April 2nd : 

"Your book just reached me as I was leaving home for a 
trip to Ireland. I did not like to send merely a formal acknow- 
ledgment, so until I had read the book, as I have now done, I 
postponed writing. 

" My first feeling is one of gratitude to you for the fresh 
light you have thrown on the subject by your vigorous and in- 


- S^ns, Cambridge 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

dep>endent treatment. So many of the people who vrrite get into 
conventional habits of what it would be absurd to describe as 
thought, that it is truly delightful to read the views of a very 
able man who sets down fearlessly what he has to say. There 
are many points which I should like to discuss with you. At 
present I will only say that I thank you heartily for )our kind 
word about the meteorites. 

"The fact is that the common notion among astronomers, 
who have neither logic nor imagination, as to the origin of 
meteorites is the following beautiful syllogism : 

" Periodic meteor showers enter the atmosphere from outside. 

" Meteorites enter the atmosphere from outside. Therefore 
meteorites and periodic meteor showers have a similar origin ! 

" There is really nothing but this rubbish in support of what 
most writers take for granted, that the meteorites which are in 
our museums and the objects which make the Leonids are of a 
kindred cosmical character. 

"The fact, however, that the Ovifak iron, 'meteoric' in its 
appearance, never left the earth at all (as is proved by the speci- 
mens at South Kensington) shows that the most characteristic 
'meteoric' product is a terrestrial material. Peary's so-called 
' meteorite ' is, I believe, of the same character ; while at Coon 
Butte, in Mexico, a pudding-headed geological survey man 
descanted on the miraculous coincidence by which a flight of 
great iron meteorites from heaven were dumped down into a 
bed of lava while that was still soft, so that the lumps of iron 
stuck out when the lava was cold. Of course, this iron, though 
certainly the iron nickel alloy, had come out from the earth with 
the basalt, but had never been shot away. Because it was the 
same stuff as is found in meteorites, thereupon, argues this sage, 
it must be a meteorite. 

" A meteorite, like Macduff, was ripped * from its mother's 
womb ' from some great mass, certainly not from anything of 
the nature of a comet, wiiile the periodic shooting stars are, of 
course, connected with comets. 

" Other noodles have urged the resistance of the air as a 
difficulty when opposing the motion of a volcanic projectile at 
six miles a second. They fail to see that such an outbreak 
means a tremendous discharge of vapour, and gases as well, in 
the middle of which clouds of missiles may ascend without any 
atmospheric resistance. This was seen at Krakatoa." 

After his work on " Spherical Astronomy " was published he 
wrote to Dr. Rambaut : 

"I have seen no notice of my book except one in the Scots- 
man, and I have only had one letter on the subject which calls 
L i6i 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

for any remark. It was from Professor Newcomb, who, as 
you know, has recently published a book on the same subject. 
He wrote : 

" ' It is very interesting to notice how completely the purpose 
of your work differs from that of mine. You treat the subject 
as an interesting branch of applied mathematics, while I have 
mostly in view the requirements of the working astronomer.' 

" This extract will be a useful pellet, when I am accused, 
as of course I may be, of having stolen everything in the book 
from Newcomb's work. Had I not this I should merely have 
had to fall back on the stupid fact that ninety-nine per cent, 
of my book was written before Newcomb's appeared! This 
being merely a truth would, of course, be no use in connection 
with the average ' review.' " 

My father received many letters from readers of his. books. 
Perhaps "The Story of the Heavens" was the one most fre- 
quently referred to. On November 25th, 1893, ^ ^^^J wrote 
from Manchester : 

" I feel that I must write and thank you for having written 
that glorious book ' The Story of the Heavens.' I have just 
finished reading it aloud to my husband, who has been confined 
to his bed for several months. It has given him the greatest 
imaginable pleasure. We have both enjoyed it most thoroughly 
and feel grateful to you for the pleasure it has given us." 

The father of a midshipman wrote in January, 1894, to say 
that before his son joined the Training Squadron (H.M.S. 
Active) on a cruise to the West Indies he had given him a copy 
of " The Story of the Heavens " : 

"Whenever my son writes he speaks of the delight that it 
gives him, and he has also given us strange accounts of the 
ignorance of some of his messmates as to astronomical subjects. 
In a letter received to-day, writing from near Sierra Leone on 
Dec. i6th, he says : 'I have started a regular astronomical fever 
in the ship. Everyone is reading my book and hunting out 
the stars. All the principal stars in sight about eight to ten in 
the evening are well known to us, and as we go south there are 
still more new ones to be seen. The Commodore has given an 
order that an observation of a star is to be taken every night 
by the midshipman of the watch.' 

"I am not at all surprised, having read some of your most 
brilliant and interesting wrttings, to find that your fascinating 
descriptions of the heavens have had this effect upon my boy 
and his shipmates. Last night I myself sat up until midnight 
reading ' The Story of the Sun,' and your other work lately 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

published. I thank you, therefore, on my own account for the 
delight you have caused me, and still more that your work is 
offering to my boy such an ennobling and stimulating study as 
that of astronomy. 

" This, no doubt, is only one of many such tributes that you 
receive. But it is very sincere." 

In 1897 there was a call for another edition of "The Story 
of the Heavens." The assistance of Dr. Dreyer was invoked on 
this occasion. On July 19th my father wrote, in reply to a 
suggestion that the chapter on "The Planet of Romance" 
should be expunged : 

" I am not at all disposed to sacrifice the chapter on ' The 
Planet of Romance.' I quite agree in what you say, and that 
the evidence hitherto (Watson alone excepted) is entirely nega- 
tive. But no amount of negative evidence will demonstrate to 
me that such a thing does not exist. Prima facie, I think it 
very likely that intra-Mercurial planets do exist, and I can by no 
means treat as wholly unworthy of credence the observations 
of so skilful a man as Watson. But I have no objection to 
have the conclusion qualified a good deal, by saying that no 
such bodies have been seen by any of the modern investigators. 
I would like, of course, to have full justice done to Lockyer's 
work throughout. The meteoritic hypothesis will be a difficulty. 
We must, however, say something about it. I do not, however, 
in the least withdraw anything I have said myself with regard to 
the origin of meteorites. Everything that has happened since 
seems to make the terrestrial volcanic view of their origin a more 
reasonable one." 

He had numerous letters from Professor Barnard. The 
following from the observatory of the University of Chicago 
(August I St, 1 901) is typical : 

" I want to thank you for a copy of your most excellent little 
book on astronomy. I shall be glad to recommend it to those 
who want a most admirable and clear account of astronomy. 
Your writings are always so clear and satisfactory and are so 
easily understood by those who are not able to grasp the average 
writings on the subject. It is a pity there is not more written 
in this simple, clear, and comprehensible style. 

"I also want to thank you for the copy of the paper con- 
taining the excellent drawing showing you lecturing in London. 
I wish I could have been at one of those lectures ! 

"Ah, me! I have just got back from Sumatra, where I tried 
to photograph the eclipse of May i8th. It makes me sick to 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

think of the whole thins^, all that long journey, all the hard 
labour and anxiety, and all the most perfect preparations, every- 
thing to be lost by a few miserable clouds. It is too bad. I 
had made most admirable preparations ; using the sixty-one and 
a half feet coelostat with one plate forty inches square and two 
thirty inches square , and five, fourteen by seventeen. 

" Everything w^as in splendid shape and worked to perfection 
and such a duration of totality! All to be spoiled by clouds. 
We passed close to Krakatoa in the Strait of Sunda. It was 
the most interesting thing we saw all the journey — mainly from 
the fact that it was the object that filled the earth's atmosphere 
full of dust for several years and caused our red sunsets of 
1883, etc. I succeeded in getting some photographs of it. What 
remains is now 2,600 feet high. 

"I left here on Feb. 6th for Sumatra and got back a week 
ago. It was a long journey — and the latter part of the return 
a most tiresome one. But if I had got a lot of fine photographs 
of the corona, I suppose it would have been different and that 
I should have sung all the way back. Verily the path of the 
successful is strewn with roses, and he that meets with failure 
finds nothing but stones in his way." 

My father's joy knew no bounds when Professor Whittaker 
solved Laplace's Equation. He wrote to Dr. Rambaut (Sep- 
tember 30th, 1902) : 

"Had Tisserand contained a solution of Laplace's Equation 
it would at once have become one of the great classics, but this 
discovery has been reserved for Whittaker. No mathematical 
discovery made within my recollection has given me the thrill that 
this has done! Every mathematician from the days of Laplace 
down would have been only too proud to have accomplished such 
a feat. The great beauty of it is that it is so simple. In these 
days when such awful mathematics are the rage a result so com- 
paratively elementary (though it does involve a definite integral) 
is very refreshing." 

A letter to his old college friend, Mr. W. H. S. Monck, 
dated March 31st, 1902, relates to the appearance of a new 
star. It had been suggested that the new heavenly body was 
the result of a collision between two such bodies in the sky, each 
travelling at immense speed. He had also been asked as to 
the relative age of the planets : 

" It is indeed hard to understand the 18,000 miles a second of 
speed, and we must only await further information. The sud- 
denness of the phenomenon seems to require something of the 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

nature of a collision, though indeed, if we had not seen such a 
velocity produced, I do not think we should have thought it 
possible. I cannot think that the view which supposes what 
we have seen on the photograph to be merely reflected light is 
tenable. Reflected light from such distances seems impossible, 
unless the photographic plate w^ere capable of representing light 
a millionth part of the intensity of visible light. 

"As to the relative ages of the planets I know nothing. I 
see in the spiral nebulae the inner parts are sometimes more 
developed than the outer parts, and sometimes vice versa, and 
therefore the relative ages of the planets in our system is to me 
a phrase totally devoid of any meaning or physical significance. 
I only say to the other planets what the Irish carman said to 
the old lady, 'Whatever your age is, ma'm, you don't look it! ' 

"Your countenance smiles down upon me at one end of the 
group of ten which was taken some forty years ago. The other 
comer man, John Shortt, I had the great pleasure of seeing here 
the other day ; he is, as you doubtless know. County Court Judge 
in Cambridge. 

" I note what you say about the eclipses, and I shall preserve 
your letter, but I don't know anything about it at present." 

His chief assistant, Mr. Andrew Graham, wrote the follow- 
ing interesting letter with regard to the discovery of Neptune : 

"You recall to my recollection an incident, connected with 
the search for Neptune, which I related to you several years 
since; and which I had from the lips of the Rev. William 
Kingsley himself, one of the agents in the affair. You wish me 
to put it on paper, and I do so all the more freely as it is now 
of historical interest and ought not to be forgotten. 

"About the time of the discovery. Professor Challis and the 
Rev. William Kingsley were dining in company at the Fellows' 
Table in Trinity College, when the conversation naturally turned 
on young Adams, of St. John's College, the brilliant Senior 
Wrangler, his researches on the perturbations of Uranus, and his 
attempt to locate the cause of those perturbations, which the at- 
tractions of Saturn and Jupiter failed fully to account for. 

"Professor Challis stated that Adams believed that the irre- 
gularities w^re due to the action of a superior planet, about twice 
the distance of Uranus from the sun, and had actually given 
him the Right Ascension and the Declination of the disturber, 
obtained from his investigations ; and, moreover, that he and 
his assistants had been examining places of unknown stars, and 
inserting them in an atlas for future examination. He added 
that a night or two previously he had detected in one of the stars 
what appeared to him a very small disc, which, of course, he 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

intended to re-examine on the first clear night. ' It is clear now/ 
said Mr. Kingsley, ' why not go to the Observatory and have 
a look at it ? * They went, as soon as they could with pro- 
priety leave the hall, and began to prepare for going out to the 
Northumberland Dome, when Mrs. Challis interposed and said, 
' You must not go out till you have a cup of tea.' They yielded, 
the tea was made and disposed of, they got on their wraps, and, 
alas, the sky was hopelessly clouded ! 

" P.5;— Airy heard it, but didn't believe it, 

Challis saw it, but didn't perceive it." 

In December, 1902, Mr. Samuel Roberts, M.P., wrote to 
Sir Robert with reference to certain pictures of the Great Comet 
of 181 1. He said : 

" I have referred to my grandfather's pictures of the comet, 
and I find it was 181 1. 

" I St Picture. As seen at Park Grange, Sheffield, September 
2nd, 181 1, at 8 o'clock. 

"2nd Picture. Ditto on September 17th. 

" 3rd Picture. Ditto on October 5th. 

" Can you kindly tell me if this comet has a recognised 
name ? " 

He received the following reply : 

"It does not appear that any name has been specially as- 
signed to the Great Comet of 181 1. It appears to have been 
discovered on March 26th, 181 1, by Flaugergues, and to have 
remained visible for the exceptionally long period of seventeen 
months. It is said to have been conspicuously visible in the 
evening of the autumn of 181 1, and it had a tail twenty -five 
degrees long and six degrees broad. Doubtless the very inter- 
esting pictures by your grandfather to which you refer were taken 
when the comet was at its best. It appears to have a period of 
about three thousand years, so those who are living in the forty- 
ninth century may hope to enjoy another apparition. Consider- 
ing the dearth of comets visible to the naked eye in recent years, 
it is interesting to note that there was a second comet which 
appeared in November of 181 1, and that in 18 13 there were also 
two bright comets." 

One of his oldest friends, a clergyman who was a confirmed 
bachelor, having expressed certain views as to marriage with 
a deceased wife's sister, Sir Robert wrote in playful vein as 
follows ; 

" I am surprised at you sending me such a thing. What on 
earth do you know about the deceased wife's sister ^ Wait until 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

you get the one sister first of all, and then write to ask my 
opinion. Perhaps you are like the man in Ireland whose wife 
was a confirmed invalid. He went to his rector to know if he 
mightn't marry his wife's sister. 'What do you mean,* said 
the rector, ' by such a question — have you not got a wife already ? ' 
' Yes, your riverence, but sure, I hear how thim lawyers say a 
man may marry his diseased wife's sister ' ! 

" I am sure I don't know why a man like you, who has not 
got a wife at all, should suddenly become so anxious to get 
two. I have a great mind to send your letter on to the Bishop ! " 

On one occasion he was asked to compose a few lines which 
were to be entombed in the foundation-stone of an American 

Dr. David Todd, of the Amherst College Observatory 
(Mass.), wrote as follows (May 28th, 1903) : 

" The building of our new observatory has progressed so 
rapidly that we shall lay the corner-stone on June 23rd (Tues- 
day of Commencement Week). Our Board of Trustees would 
greatly appreciate it, if you could send a brief word of greet- 
ing, to deposit with the other pap)ers in the bronze box which 
will be sealed in the corner-stone on that occasion." 

The reply was in the following terms : 

"Observatory, Cambridge, June 9th: — Your very kind letter 
has given me the one chance in my life! I have long despaired 
of immortality. Now I see it unexpectedly offered me. With 
what gladness do I accept the opportunity ! 

"Yes, please, do lay this letter in your bronze box, which is 
doubtless as strong and enduring as the occasion requires. 

" I look through the ages. I see the Amherst College Obser- 
vatory for many a decade, for even certain centuries, discharg- 
ing its noble function of contributing to our knowledge of the 
Universe. I see it a venerable pile with great traditions, and, 
remembering the westward course of Empire, I see, I must see, 
this great Institution passing into decline ; I see it even as a ruin, 
and in thousands of years I see it mouldering into decay. 

" Then after yet further immense ages, I see a new Ice Age 
approaching. I see the great ice sheet rearranging the materials 
of civilisation. Looking still further, I see the ice sheet vanish. 
I see the fairest parts of our earth warm again with sunshine, 
glowing with flowers, and occupied with new races of inhabitants 
as much advanced beyond man, as man is beyond his arboreal 
ancestors. I see some future geologist exhuming an astonishing 
object from boulder clay perhaps a thousand miles from Am- 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

herst. I see him at a specially summoned meeting of the Great 
World Academy, forcing open a bronze chest of indescribable 
antiquity. I see him with trembling hands raising from it a 
crumbling mass of archives. I see the archaeologists crowding 
around, striving to decipher inscriptions in unknown symbols of 
unknown antiquity. 

"I would fain hope that at last they may discover how a 
British astronomer once sent to his friends and colleagues across 
the Atlantic a heartfelt message of sympathy and good will, 
expressive of his best wishes for the success of the new Amherst 
College Observatory." 

He wrote of Mr. Lecky and Dr. John Purser in a letter 
to Mrs. Millington (October 25th, 1903) : 

" I have just lost two friends ; it is hard to say which I re- 
spected the most. They are Lecky and John Purser. I have 
known each of them for forty years, and though of late I have 
not seen John Purser very often, yet I do not think that much 
interfered with our mutual regard. They were very nearly my 
contemporaries — two or three years senior. It was a big differ- 
ence when we were in College, but it is not much now, with us 
old people. I am recalling all day a line in one of Lecky *s poems 
(most people know him only as an historian) : 

" ' How hard to die ; how happy to be dead ! ' 

" The character of each of the men was even more remarkable 
than his attainments. I shall sadly miss Lecky's gracious 
presence in the Athenaeum." 

On September 17th, 1905, he wrote to the Rev. H. B. 
Swanzy : 

"The enclosed copy of extracts from the Churchwardens' 
Register at St. Mary's, Cambridge, is no earthly use to me, but 
before pitching it into the waste basket I send it on to ask you 
to do anything you like with it provided I never see it again. 

" It is beyond me to conceive why any mortal should care to 
know (as on p. 56). 

" ' Item for iij vnces of ffysseman rebyn at xijd pe vnce.* But 
I suppose this will amuse somebody. 

" Another objection I have to the book is that I can get up-to- 
date accounts which are just as unintelligible. It is interesting 
to note that these old churchwardens at St. Mary's have living 
descendants, who keep the same style of books. I enclose a 
bill I had yesterday. Perhaps you will kindly return it to me, 
not so much on account of its intrinsic merits as because if I 
do not produce it I shall lose the amount." 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

The bill enclosed was as follows : 

"1905 Sir 
Robert Ball. 

August to Mr Walker Repren the feance. 

7 One posts an spures. 3-6 
An slaits on gait. 2-8 
time one Day 8 houres. 4-0 
5 houres the next day. 2-9 
tar an naills. i - 3 
5 laider rounds. 1-6 


8 new repren the barrow 
whel new spoaken 

an new tyre on. 4-10 

Paid to Mr ' I - 

■Walker septem 
the 16." 

His friendship with Sir Oliver Lodge is revealed in a letter 
dated May nth, 1906: 

"My dear Oliver, — I think I have known you long enough 
and I certainly have liked you well enough to venture on this 
liberty. You will, I hope, give me a Robert for my Oliver. . . ." 

He spent many pleasant days at Greenore as the guest of 
Lord Rathmore. The company generally included the late 
Lord Justice Fitzgibbon, Mr. Justice Ross, the late Sir Thomas 
Snagge, Sir Charles Ball, Bart., F.R.C.S., and many others. 
Here is a typical letter of invitation to one of these parties which 
he received while in Sw-itzerland (August i6th, 1907) : 

" Your brother writes to me that you are ' in hiding * and 
have forbidden the forwarding of letters from home, but he has 
at the same time sold the pass by giving me your address, and 
so, lest a note I send to your Cambridge abode should not reach 
you, I fire this further missile at you over the mountain barriers 
of Switzerland, for the purpose of telling you that I hope to 
have a little golf and a bridge * party at Greenore for about 
a fortnight, beginning on Sept. 4. You will be most welcome 
if you can manage to give me that pleasure. Your brother 
has promised to join us on the 4th, so do come, like a good 
fellow, and stay as long as you can." 

* My faiher was not, however, a bridge player. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

Mr. Justice Ross made poetical allusion to the presence 
of the two brothers at one of these gatherings. The following 
are a few of his verses : 

The Prior sent his message, 

And in answer to his call 
There came the great twin brethren 

Who bear the name of Ball. 

One holds aloft the famous lanoe 

That lays Appendix low ; 
The other is on friendly terms 

With all the stars that glow. 

His friend is great Arcturus, 

His chum Aldebaran. 
Both Cygnus and Orion swear 

There lives no greater man. 

They say that stately Vega 

With jealousy grows dim, 
When sly and coy Capella 

Is winking hard at him. 

My father was warmly attached to Lord Justice Fitzgibbon, 
who had been a playmate of his youth. He wrote to Mrs. 
Millington shortly after the death of the Lord Justice 
(October 15th, 1909) : 

" Only the day before I saw you I played a bright and 
pleasant game of golf with Lord Justice Fitzgibbon, and now, 
alas! It was the fifth time I had stayed with him at Lord 
Rathmore's delightful gatherings at Greenore, and the old 
affections had revived, and I am truly mourning the loss of a 
friend who was a great and good man. He had been ailing 
somewhat, and it did occur to me once or twice that his intense 
energy was unwholesome. 

"You cannot imagine the bright and happy friendliness at 
those gatherings ; but the light of them has now gone out. There 
is not a soul in the world with whom I can now talk about the 
Walkers (Hennie and Roger) who lived next door to us in 
Granby Row, or about the Wilsons in Temple Street. I do not 
know when a death has occurred which will tug at the heart- 
strings of so many." 

His admiration for Lord Kelvin knew no bounds. Writing 
to Mrs. Millington (December 19th, 1907), he said ; 

" * Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen 
this day in Israel ? ' These words have been incessantly in my 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

mind for the last forty-eight hours. No death which has oc- 
curred since that of Darwin has impoverished the world as has 
the death of Lord Kelvin. He was a good man as well as a 
transcendently great man. No more nobly spent eighty-three 
years were ever lived by mortal. Always kind, always hard at 
work, always the brightest and most inspiring example to all. 
Huxley once truly said of him : ' Gentler knight ne'er broke a 
lance.' With equal truth Oliver Lodge said that he held it a 
high privilege to have lived in the same generation as Kelvin! 

" This tremendous event has thrust other things from my 

Dr. Maurice Hime wrote in 1908 to inquire whether he was 
not right in assuming that the appearance and the reappearance 
of comets are subject to certain laws, known or unknown, and 
not the result of mere chance. The reply was as follows : 

"As to comets, we expect a comet in 1909-1910. It is the 
famous comet of Halley, and we know it. Astronomers know 
its orbit and its period of about seventy-five years. We have, 
none of us, much doubt that it will reappear in two or three 
years, though we cannot say at this moment whether it will be 
visible in our hemisphere. Still, there is nothing of chance in 
this ; more perfect calculations would settle it all. 

" But, as old Kepler used to say, ' There are more comets in 
the sky than there are fishes in the sea,' and there are probably 
millions of comets of which we know nothing. Some of them 
turn up every year ; and owing to our ignorance — but only our 
ignorance — it is a mere chance v^^ien a comet turns up — to-day, 
next week, next month, next year." 

Dr. Bernard, Bishop of Ossory (who w^as then Dean of 
St. Patrick's), wrote to him in April, 1908 : 

"A friend tells me that he has been informed on good 
authority that when Swift made his wonderful statement in 
Gulliver's Travels (Pt. HL, A Voyage to Lapiita, Ch. 3) about 
the number of satellites of Mars and their periodic time, he was 
not merely romancing, but writing down what some man of 
science had told him. I feel sure this is not the case, and would 
be very glad to have your view." 

The reply was as follows : 

"No doubt Kepler interpreted Galileo's anagram about 
Saturn as a triple object to mean that Mars had two satellites. 
We are told that Micromegas (1752) saw them, but Voltaire obvi- 
ously borrowed this idea from Swift. Cyrano de Bergerac seems 
also to have predicted them in the same way as Swift. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

" But it is, I believe, quite certain that these are all random 
guesses. It is impossible that they could be seen with instru- 
ments of a date earlier than that of the famous telescope at 
Washington by which they were discovered in 1877. 

"No doubt the notion that Mars had satellites was suggested 
by the consideration that 

Venus had no satellites. 

Earth ,, i 

Mars ,, X. 

Jupiter ,,4. 

" It did not require any great genius to say that x was prob- 
ably 2. It is absolutely certain that no one predicted the 
periodic times, and the most astonishing ' shot ' in the whole of 
science is Gulliver's statement that the period of one of these 
satellites was so little as ten hours. Had Swift consulted an 
average astronomer he would liave been told, ' Oh, yes, certainly, 
let Mars have two moons. That is quiie reasonable, but the ten- 
hour period is preposterously short. Make it ten days and it 
will also look quite reasonable.' The fortunate circumstance 
was that Swift drew on his own genius and not on the scientific 

" My own theory is that Swift wrote (under Arbuthnot's 
advice) ten days, but by a clerical error ten /lours was printed! 
The true periodic time (under eight hours) is, of course, unique 
in the Solar system. 

" What a wonderful chapter is that on the Grand Academy of 
Lagadol The first University for research! The 'Sunbeams 
from Cucumbers ' embodies the great doctrine of the Conserva- 
tion of Energy, and the Professor who was ' Condensing air into 
a dry tangible substance' was only the type of the modern 
Professor Dewar, who has done exactly the same thing ! " 

My father had no sympathy with the anti-vivisectionist. 
Writing to Mrs. Millington on November 9th, 1909, he said: 

" Stephen Paget made a very good speech here on vivisection, 
in which he spoke of the persecution he endured, and the stones 
that were flung at him by the anti-vivisectionists. I was in the 
chair, and I was much tempted to encourage him by reminding 
him how the stones that were thrown at another Stephen 2,000 
years ago had made him immortal ! " 

Many people having written to vSir Robert to inquire 
whether Halley's Comet was likely to be a dangerous visitor, 
he wrote to the Times on February loth, 1910: 

"I have received multitudes of letters relating to the comet. 
So many have expressed alarm as to the possibility of collision, 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

that I venture to send you the reply I have posted to-day to 
one anxious inquirer. It was as folloAv^ : 

" ' My dear , 

" * A rhinoceros in full charge would not fear collision with 
a cobweb, and the earth need not fear collision with a comet. 

"'In 1 86 1 we passed through the tail of a comet and no one 
knew anything about it at the time. 

"'For a hundred million years life has been continuous on 
this earth, though we have been visited by at least five comets 
every year. If comets could ever have done the earth any harm 
they would have done it long ago, and you and I would not 
have been discussing comets or anything else. 

" ' I hope this letter will give you the assurance you want. 
So far as I can learn we may be in the tail of Hal ley about 
May 1 2th; and I sincerely hope we shall. 

" * I think Sir John Herschel said somewhere that the whole 
comet could be squeezed into a portmanteau ! '" 

This letter was copied far and wide. It was reproduced in 
many Continental newspapers, and it even reached the Indian 
Empire. A Parsee gentleman told me that its appearance in 
the Indian papers did much to allay the dread with which the 
natives regarded the approach of the comet. 

His attitude towards Mr. Steele, his brother-in-law, is ex- 
pressed in the following letter (October 31st, 1904) : 

"I think I must owe you many letters. I don't like to phrase 
it that way, for, if you will allow me to say so, you are one of 
those to whom it is always a great pleasure to me to write. 
Perhaps you would not think so from the infrequency of my 
letters. Did not Goldsmith say, in writing to a friend, that no 
turnspit dog ever went to his task more reluctantly than Gold- 
smith himself when he began to write letters, but that no turn- 
spit dog ever loved the roast beef he cooked more than Gold- 
smith himself loved the friend to whom this sentiment was ex- 
pressed? Thems my sentiments, too, when I wTite to you." 

Mr. Steele read and revised the proofs of nearly all my 
father's works on astronomy. Writing to him shortly after 
"The Earth's Beginning" was published, my father said 
(October 13th, 1901) : 

" I don't think I ever fully expressed to you all my thanks for 
your invaluable help about the book. Please accept those thanks 
now. You will receive a copy in a few days, or it may be 
weeks, but I have seen the last of it. Next to ' The Ice Age ' it is, 
I think, the best thing I have done. Reviewers will say it is 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

' worse even than " The Ice Age," if that were possible.' At all 
events, it will owe very much to your care and loving-kindness, 
and to your encouragement." 

A friend who had returned from a trip to Norway wrote to 
ask for the loan of a book which would tell him something about 
the geology of that interesting country. He received the 
following reply (August 26th, 1894) : 

" I don't know any other book but ' Forbes,' which I have. I 
have been looking up other sources, but though I can find plenty 
about the coins of Norway, the oysters, and the prisons, I can 
see nothing as to the geology. Even Baedeker (as you doubtless 
have perceived) is silent on the matter. 

"I do not wonder you were struck with those splendid dia- 
grams of geological action which the fjords present. I, too, 
was greatly interested in those mighty banks. They often call 
them moraines, but not very correctly, for what I saw were often 
what the geologist calls 'Water Fans,' i.e. accumulations of 
debris at the foot of the fall. 

"The wonderful embankments which you mention are in some 
cases, at all events, due to two waterfalls from opposite sides 
generating ' Fans ' which meet. Then the lake begins to form, 
and it gradually washes the materials of the Fans into the shape 
of a great bank. When the lake grows big it bursts out and the 
river flows in a cut. 

" I have not got Lyell's ' Principles of Geology,' but if you 
look in one of the late editions, you would be sure to find what 
you want. I should love to have a long big talk with you on 
the subject." 

Of my father's artistic tastes it may be said that he pre- 
ferred a faithful reproduction of a beautiful natural object to 
the greatest picture by the greatest artist. Anyone who ever 
visited the Observatory at Cambridge will remember the photo- 
graph of a wave breaking on a rocky coast, which was to be 
seen just inside the door. The Lowndean Professor preferred 
to have his house filled with photographs of sunspots, Niagara, 
and glaciers rather than to have its walls covered with 

That he did like pictures, however, may be gathered from 
the following extract from a letter : 

"We had a great day at the private view. We saw many 
lovely things. Alma-Tadema's * Watching ' is exquisite — an 
oriental girl sitting on a tiger-skin in (of course) a marble hall 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

with two wondrous necklets of amethysts and topsLz! But I am 
told that the picture is destitute of ' artistic feeling,' of ' breadth,' 
and of ' spontaneity,' so, of course, I should not have admired 
it, but I did, and do. 

"There is 'spontaneity' enough about 'St. Anthony and his 
Temptation ' ! A friend of mine told me he had great difficulty 
in dissuading his rich father-in-law from buying it. Even his 
daughter's remonstrances against such a shocking thing in the 
drawing-room were without avail, until an artist's wife pointed 
out the real or imaginary defect that the foot of the ' Tempta- 
tion ' was out of drawing. This settled the matter. But the 
picture is admirable. 

"There are lovely things in profusion. I w^ould give every- 
thing I have to possess ' Calypso on her Seagirt Isle,' and 
' Napoleon's Last Review ' of the two children of (who was it ?), 
is the most pleasing picture of the great man I ever saw." 

It has already been stated that my father had trouble with 
his right eye. Before he went to Cambridge he had completely 
lost the use of it. A few years later he was advised to have 
the useless eye removed. He announced the acquisition of a 
substitute to a friend in the following terms (June 30th, 1897) : 

" I commenced a new imposture on the public yesterday with 
a glass eye ! The last word of the oculist to me was : ' You will 
■probably be much more comfortable than you have been for a 
long time ; you will certainly be much safer.' I have as yet 
really had no trouble, nor do I see any reason to dread it. I 
had to call on a high official the other day on some business 

for a friend. He had a wig just like 's, and he had a set 

of false teeth like no other human being! As I contemplated 
these curiosities with a steadfast gaze of my glass eye, the pious 
thought rose in my bosom, ' We are fearfully and wonderfully 
made ! ' " 

A few days later he wrote : 

" I am now beaming on a delightful world with my glass 
eye. I shall have an opportunity of displaying it to exceptional 
advantage on Wednesday next, when I am the guest of a hun- 
dred ladies who, I am informed, represent the female intellect 
of Great Britain. They are inviting to the banquet the hundred 
members of the other sex who, in the opinion of the ladies, and 
no doubt in their own, represent the cream of masculine perfec- 
tion both in appearance and in intellect. 

"Mrs. came the other day to see whether my glass eye 

would be endurable or not, and finding that it was (she even 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

went so far as to say it was a distinct improvement to my 
previous appearance), she gave me the invitation on the spot! 
You will remember that Tycho Brahe, having lost his nose in a 
duel, made a copper nose which both friends and enemies alike 
agreed in declaring was as good as the original! Tycho said 
that a future ' Tychonides ' would arise w^ho might be worthy of 
comparison with him. In my sanguine moments I dare to 
aspire ! 

"In the opinion, therefore, of the hundred most accomplished 
leaders of female society, I am one of the hundred handsomest 

The summer holiday was generally made the occasion of 
a family re-union. Here is an extract from a letter in which 
he urged Mr. Steele to join in a tour in Switzerland : 

"Now I am going to bring with me my wife and as many of 
my six children as can get away. I appeal to you by all the 
memories of old times ; by all the associations of the present 
and all the prospects of the future, that you will arrange to 
come too. Of course, the same applies to C. Pitch every 
thought inconsistent with this scheme to the winds. Grindel- 
wald is enchanting — and as to Davos, I believe there is only 
one better place, for which, however, I am in no hurry to take 
my ticket." 

The recipient having objected to Davos on the ground that 
there were too many germs of tuberculosis about, Sir Robert 
wrote in reply : 

"I think that very likely you could do better than go to 
Davos so far as Swiss scenery is concerned. So perhaps it would 
be better to leave yourself free after Grindelwald. 

"I don't quite appreciate your use of the word ' tuberculosed.' 
' The fact that L. finds he can run a party there year after year, 
and that M. went with him last summer, and said he would like 
to go again, shows me that for a little stay such as we want 
Davos is a suitable place. As to your remark about the 
tubercles, you seem to forget that if you are exposed to danger, 
so shall I be. You remind me of a neighbour who came to re- 
monstrate with me three times on the ground that she believed 
our dog was mad, and that therefore there was a danger to her 
and her children! 

"I could not but point out that great as was the temptation 
to keep a mad dog for the purpose she dreaded, yet I declined to 
do so because it might involve some risk to my own wife and 
family, not to mention to myself! 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

" We simply pine for the ' Continong/ Everyone knows its 
beneficent effect on health ; as Wordsworth says so beautifully : 

' Mrs. Gill is very ill, 
And nothing will improve her, 
Until she sees the Tuileries 
And waddles through the Louvre.' 

" I would not recommend you to stay behind for my son 
Charlie,* though I much appreciate your kind thought, and he 
would be glad of your company. But the fact is that the right 
to travel the next day on these tickets is a little obscure, and I 
have prepared Charlie for the demand for extra moneys en route. 
I have counselled that he should preserve a stolidly stupid de- 
meanour and pretend not to understand the French ticket-takers 
(the pretence will not be difficult). I have even authorised him 
to resort to Irish blasphemy if he cannot otherwise escape." 

If Mr. Steele were not one of the holiday party, he nearly 
always received full written accounts of all that happened. 
When staying at Waterville, Co. Kerry, my father wrote 
(August 14th, 1905) : 

"This is a lovely place in fine weather, such as the last few 
days have been. It is full of interest in every way. The river 
is round the house, and the lake, the mountains, and the Atlantic 
are all close by. Within sight of the windows of our bedroom 
is a ' Druidical sacrificial stone' (so-called) and a miniature 
Stonehenge — a really wonderful monument. We drove to see 
Staigue Fort. It is only the most conspicuous of a dozen other 
similar old forts in and about here. Your sister has developed 
into a first-class fisherwoman. Hooked, played, and killed three 
fine trout ! Her method of playing is as novel as effective. She 
simply backed up the mountain side until the fish gave in and 
surrendered to the landing-net! If I am not a fisherman, I have 
at all events taken out a licence for a salmon rod, and in com- 
pany with a bishop I am going to spend next Friday in the 
traditional apostolic occupation. We shall launch our boat into 
the deep Lough Currane. 

"As I write a carriage comes doum the hill bringing guests. 
They are the Misses O'Connell of Derrynane, the great-grand- 
daughters of Dan himself, whose funeral (as I shall be sure to 
tell them) I saw when I was six years old. 

"I received a drubbing at golf this morning from the rector 
here, who plays a good game. The links are situated on the 
seashore, with a magnificent surrounding of mountains." 
♦ Charles Rowan Hamilton Ball, L.R.C.P., M.R.C.S. 
M 177 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

Of the "Life of Cardinal Manning," he wrote on March iith, 

" I have just been enjoying one of the most interesting books 
I ever read; the Life of Manning! Of course, this is a stale 
matter now, but my reading is always belated. What a great 
drama the whole thing is, and the biography is, I think, the 
best I have ever read. The whole thing would make a great 
play, only that there are no females in it. Not that I think 
much of Manning himself, or, indeed, for that matter, of any 
one character in the book, but it is wonderful. The fight between 
the Infallibilists and their opponents is grand!" 

He wrote to his son Robert on May 21st, 1901 : 

" Did you ever read Mill's ' Political Economy ' ? It is a 
charming book. I would not allow anyone to be a candidate 
for Parliament who could not pass an examination in it." 

As all the world knows, a shower of Leonids was expected 
in the autumn of 1899. My father, who had a vivid recollec- 
tion of what he saw at Parsonstown thirty-three years before, 
looked forward to the enjoyment of a similar spectacle. He 
told his friends to do the same. In the early part of November 
numerous people sought his advice as to the best place from 
which to see the meteors, and the best time to maintain a vigil. 
Indeed, the callers at the Cambridge Observatory became so 
numerous that Sarah, the parlourmaid, was at pains to protect 
the Lowndean Professor from too frequent interruption. He 
was greatly diverted when he heard of the advice which she 
gave to one group of visitors. Having been told that "Sir 
Robert was not at home," they ventured to ask the maid if she 
happened to know what time the meteors were expected. "I 
think you had better sit up all night," she replied. 

On the night when the meteors were really expected a kind 
of informal "at home" was given at the observatory. The 
chief assistant, Mr. Arthur Hinks, F.R.S., made the necessary 
arrangements. Writing to him on November 17th, Sir Robert 
said : 

" I herewith enclose a cheque, being in liquidation of the 
refreshment account in connection with the Leonids. 

" I am glad indeed that you divined my wishes so truly by 
taking upon yourself to order for my account what was neces- 
sary to sustain the faculties of Herschel's party. I do love to 
have people who will assume little responsibilities like that when 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

the proper occasion for doing so arises. In fact, it gives me 
much heart-searching to think that I had forgotten to speak to 
you about it until it was too late for me to do anything. It 
was therefore a great relief to find that you had done so. 

" But lest there should be any doubt as to my future wishes, 
I now hereby authorise you to order a sumptuous supper for all 
and sundry who will attend at the observatory on the occasion 
of the next meteor shower in the year A.D. 1933 ! I will pay the 
bills, no matter what they are. I will only leave you the trouble 
of discovering my address ! " 

Writing to a friend on November 23rd, he said : 

" The meteors seem to have been a fiasco ! The only person 
who saw them was a policeman, but that was on the wrong night ! 
I am assured that Constable B 9999, on whose testimony the 
phenomenon is recorded, is a teetotaller. The only points that 
I have been able to collect with certainty are that he was sitting 
on a gate at the time, and that he saw hundreds of stars ; other- 
wise the account is a little obscure ! " 

When Queen Victoria paid her visit to Ireland in 1900 my 
father and uncle remembered that they owed something of 
their early advancement to the generosity of the Crown. They 
wrote as follows on April 4th, 1900 : 

" May it please Your Majesty, 

"Your Majesty was graciously pleased by Queen's letter in 
the year 1857 to grant unto our mother, Mrs. Amelia G. Ball, a 
pension in recognition of the services rendered to science by our 
father, the late Robert Ball, LL.D., which she continued to 
receive until her death in 1895. 

"We her surviving sons trust it will not be considered pre- 
sumptuous if, upon the occasion of Your Majesty's visit to our 
native city, we take the opportunity of tendering the expression 
of our devoted loyalty and our heartfelt gratitude for that timely 
aid rendered so many years ago to our dear mother in her distress, 
which, as she often told us, largely assisted her in providing us 
with our education. 

" We have the honour to remain, 

"Your Majesty's obedient servants, 

" Robert S. Ball, 
" Lowndean Professor of Astronomy and Geometry in the 
University of Cambridge ; late Royal Astronomer of 

"Charles B. Ball, 
" Regius Professor of Surgery, University of Dublin." 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

They received the following reply : 

"Vice-Regal Lodge, 

"Dear Sir, "April yth, 1900. 

"The Queen was greatly touched by the letter which you, 
jointly with your brother, Sir Robert Ball, addressed to Her 

"I am desired to thank you for the kindly and loyal senti- 
ments which it contained. 

" The Queen feels that Mrs. Ball must have been proud in 
the thought how more than amply recompensed she had been 
for whatever provision she had been able to make for the edu- 
cation of your brother and yourself by the eminent positions 
which, by your distinguished talents, she lived to see you re- 
spectively occupy. 

" Believe me, Dear Sir, 

"Yours very faithfully, 

"Arthur Bigge. 
"C. B. Ball, Esq., M.D., F.R.C.S.I., 

"Regius Professor of Surgery, University of Dublin." 

Mr. Steele having written to describe a visit of Queen 
Victoria to Ireland, Sir Robert wrote on May 17th, 1900 : 

"Many thanks for your long letter, but I felt I could not 
answer it before. Your swagger about the Queen was so awful, 
that it was wholly impossible for me to stand up to it, until I 
had had a private and confidential conversation with a King! 
This condition having been now satisfied, I am able to do what 
I have been long panting to do, and that is to reply to your 

" His Majesty of Sweden has been here getting a degree, and 
we had a private tea-party at the Provost's lodge. He told me 
that he had sat up till two o'clock to see the shooting stars, and 
shaking me by the shoulders, he said, 'Why did not they come 
off ? ' One of the ladies who was there said, ' Oh, we hold Sir 
Robert Ball responsible for that disgraceful failure.* Then the 
King came to the rescue. ' There are three classes of persons,' 
said he, 'who are constantly abused, most unjustly. They are 
politicians, kings, and men of science! Now I have been most 
shockingly abused all over the Continent for my friendship 
to Britain, but friendly to Britain I am, and friendly to Britain 
I will remain.' One lady said to him of Sweden, 'I hope your 
Majesty enjoys the climate of Roehampton ; I have frequently 
seen your Majesty riding on your bicycle in the neighbourhood.' 
* Oh, no, no, no, no,' said Oscar (not Browning, of course, though 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

be was there, I need hardly say), * I never was on such a thing 
in my life ; the person you saw on the bicycle was my chief 
steward.* But his Majesty was very jovial, he clutched each 
lady by the arm as he spoke to her, and finally made a pretty 
little speech when he went away, saying he hoped we should all 
meet again. 

"Last night I dined at the Authors' Club. I wish you had 
been there. It was the annual dinner of the Authors' Society, 
and there were about three hundred present. Pinero was in the 
chair and made a wonderful speech, in which he spoke of the 
condescension of the Society of Authors in admitting as their 
chairman a poor relation who was a mere dramatist. He worked 
this point very amusingly by an elaborate description of a poor 
relation being asked to dinner. After returning to his lodgings, 
and sitting down before the gas stove he gazed on the unsym- 
pathetic asbestos and realised his lot. The diction was perfect 
and the manner consummate, but it was entirely that of an actor 
who had studied his book perfectly. The other speakers of the 
evening were Anthony Hope, who was amusingly chaffed by 
Pinero in his double capacity as Mr. Hawkins and Anthony 
Hope. He told us of a young lady acquaintance of his who had 
an eager, if somewhat uninformed interest in current literature, 
and who asked him if he knew^ Mrs. Craigie. Yes, he said, he 
liad that privilege. ' Then tell me,' said this young lady, ' why 
does she disguise herself under the name of Anthony Hope ? ' a 
beautiful illustration of a muddle which brought down the 
house! But by far the best speech of the evening was made, it 
goes without saying, by an Irishman, Mr. Bernard Shaw. You 
probably know his works. I never heard of him before. He 
amusingly described the reason why he went into literature. It 
was because he disliked the hard work attached to any honest 
calling. He then spoke of the poverty of authors, and said 
that it was insult added to injury to have that poverty mocked by 
an opulent playwright. My seat at the banquet was a distin- 
guished one. I sat between Holman Hunt and Madame Sarah 

His Majesty the late King of Sweden was not the only 
royal personage with whom my father became acquainted in 
his Cambridge days. He also met the Alake of Abeokuta. 
Of the visit of this potentate to Cambridge he wrote to Mrs. 
Millington (June nth, 1904): 

" But the Alake of Abeokuta, whom we met at a party at the 
house of Baron von Hiigel, has won all hearts. In Ireland we 
should describe him as ' a jolly old cock.* He is full of interest 
in everything. I had a long chat with him through the inter- 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

preter. Though blacker than this ink, he knows everything, and 
was specially interested in seeing the rooms in Trinity occupied 
by Macaulay and Thackeray and Newton and knew their fame 
and works. He was gorgeously dressed in native costume, with 
a white cotton head dress, and a white cotton lizard on the top 
as the emblem of sovereignty. His pantaloons were short 
enough, however, to disclose a bran new pair of patent leather 

boots evidently just bought at , which, with the tags stand' 

ing out straight behind, rather spoiled an otherwise picturesque 
effect. The Dean of Westminster brought us down this story, 
which you will like. The Alake paid a visit to the Abbey, 
and the Dean told the organist to play such airs as, while 
compatible with the sacredness of the locality, would still 
be" lively enough to provide something suitable to tropical 
African taste. So the music went on, when suddenly it occurred 
to the Dean to ask through the interpreter if there was any air 
which the Alake would particularly like. ' Yes, " Abide with me," ' 
was the immediate reply. Word was sent to the organist, who, 
without stopping, gradually transformed whatever he was im- 
provising into what was asked for, and as the divine strains 
swelled through the Abbey the tears streamed down the black 
royal countenance! Yes, we did all of us like the Alake, and 
he would be welcome here again." 

In April, 1904, my father's "portrait" appeared in Vanity 
Fair over the title "Popular Astronomy." Mr. L. E. Steele 
having been invited by the editor to prepare a brief account of 
the subject of the cartoon, wrote as follows : 

"Sir Robert Ball. 

"Not having been consulted as to the place of his birth, he 
nevertheless selected Dublin ; whence it comes that his humour 
is not Anglo-Saxon. Yet an English school and an English 
university have done their utmost to suppress it. Being a kind- 
hearted man, he tolerates the Saxon, yet he disapproves of free 
breakfasts for school children. 

" Although a portly man he is said to have heard ' the Music 
of the Spheres ' (vide Shakespeare). 

"With a passion for horses, and being a recognised authority 
on ' Screws,' yet he has never been known to ride to hounds. 
Notwithstanding that he golfs, his language is beyond reproach. 
"He has been known to farm, a pursuit which, however, he 
has now delegated to his wife; and has expressed his opinion 
on the merits of ' decorticated cotton cake.' His acquaintance 
with 'roots' is strictly limited to the 'genus mathematicum.' 
" He has recently acquired a taste for politics and is the doyen 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

of a Cambridge caucus. Yet Sir John Gorst is said to have a 
high opinion of him! He is a man of ' letters,' being an LL.D., 
an F.R.S., an F.R.A.S., an M.R.D.S., and an M.R.G.C* He 
is thought to have written books, and is believed to have 
lectured ; yet he is an admirable after-dinner speaker ! 

"Being a confirmed Darwinian, he has, with the assistance of 
Mr. Fox-Davies, traced his descent from a Pithecanthropus 
Alatiis resident in Youghal. Hence he is a vice-president of the 
Dublin Zoological Gardens." 

After the cartoon had appeared my father wrote : 
" Mciny thanks indeed for your most kindly and genial words 
as 'Jehu Junior.' Even though, as you tell me, they have 
mangled some of your points, yet from the excellence of them 
as they stand I can conjecture how sublime they must originally 
have been. The family approves of the libretto, but some of 
them are fit to be tied about the portrait. I don't quite know 
what sort of Adonis they expected. But it seems to have given 
much general satisfaction. I have heard of it from dozens of 

He was deeply interested in the career of a young Russian 
who had a remarkable success in the mathematical school at 
Cambridge. On January 5th, 1906, he wrote : 

" I have been terribly busy for many weeks. The appearance 
of my book by no means brought me the leisure I hoped. For 
the first time in my life I have got into the hands of the Jews! 
A Russian Jewish exile, Brodetsky, who came to London in 
1893, brought with him a child of, who by miraculous genius 
became Senior Wrangler here last year, his father being still a 
pedlar in WTiitechapel. This youth came to me to learn mathe- 
matical astronomy. He is the most wx>nderful genius I have 
ever come across, and in order to do him justice I have been 
working at the highest pressure for three months, and shall have 
a couple of months more at least. But the work is most con- 
genial and indeed delightful. The Maccabean Club, a Jewish 
society of the leading intellectual and professional Jews in 
London, gave a dinner in honour of Brodetsky and invited me. 
It was most interesting in every way, and at the dinner was the 
worthy father, and when we were told the miserable story of his 
expulsion from his native land fifteen years ago, we could not 
help congratulating him that the function of the evening showed 
him that the cloud had its silver lining. 

"P.S. — Brodetsky's career is a superb answer to the twaddle 
about bringing the Universities within reach of the working man. 
If the ^^x)rking man has genius, the Universities are at present 
* Member Royston Golf Club.— Ed. 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

within his reach. If he has not genius there is no kindness in 
bringing him to the University at all." 

On June 3rd, 1906, he wrote to Mr. Steele : 

" Do you remember when a Dublin newspaper, in a glowing 
description of Guinness's brewery, said they produced so much 
porter that it needed a pipe not only three inches in diameter, 
but more than half a mile long to carry the liquor from one 
part of the buildings to another ? 

" The same hand has now been turned on to describe the 
Madrid tragedy. Witness the following passage : 

" ' We shall have to wait for some little time before the real 
extent of the outrage can be ascertained. The Epoca, however, 
announces that thirteen soldiers and eleven civilians have been 
killed, and that twenty-six soldiers and twenty-four persons 
have lost their lives seriously. Their Majesties mercifully were 
spared, but the infernal machine carried death or maiming for 
life through the ranks of a crowd on holiday-making intent. 
Seventy-four persons have lost their lives, and fifty others have 
met with injuries which in some cases will terminate fatally.' 

"Will you, for the credit of Irish journalism, answer me the 
following questions : 

" I . — How many people lost their lives seriously ? 

"2. — If a soldier is not a person, what would a policeman be ? 

" 3. — Distinguish clearly between the eleven civilians who were 
killed and the twenty- four persons who lost their lives seriously ? 

"4. — Show arithmetically that thirteen soldiers and eleven 
civilians -plus twenty-six soldiers plus twenty-four persons (seri- 
ously) equal seventy-four." 

Some account of one of his visits to London is to be found 
in the following letter (April 22nd, 1906) : 

"We wanted you badly in London. I paid four visits to the 
Natural History Museum and was more and more delighted with 
its wonders. Especially was I pleased to see the fossil stomach 
of an Ichthyosaurus showing the pebbles which this animal used 
to swallow for digestive purposes, thus again illustrating the 
connection of the reptiles with the birds. In another specimen 
a group of foetal Ichthyosauri show that this beast was vivi- 
parous. Then, too, I never before studied the anatomy of the 
legs of a boa constrictor! Nor did I ever before know how 
wonderfully the cuckoo can mimic in her own ^g'g the varied 
characters of the eggs in the nest she may happen to have 
chosen. But I didn't mean to worry you with all this. For the 
sake of old times I had to make one midnight visit to — — — , 
whose shops are now in many cases glorified beyond recognition. 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

" Then, too, I wanted you for big trips at cheap fares on 
the Mobuses (Mobi ?). I had a grand run to Hammersmith, a 
place I had never even seen! It is a part of my religion never 
to go to the Boat Race or to Lord's." 

Mr. Steele, who is an Egj^tologist, would sometimes write 
of matters which were of interest to an astronomer. On May 5th, 
1 910, he wrote : 

" The Great Pyramid was, as you know, built by King 
Khufu, better known by his Greek name of Cheops, of the 
fourth dynasty. 

"His date, as given by Petrie, is 3969 — 3908 B.C., and the 
building was erected at some time between those dates. Tradi- 
tion and indeed custom point to the building having been com- 
menced upon the king's accession, and Herodotus tells us it took 
twenty years to build. If this be so, 3949 B.C., or let us say 
3950 B.C., saw it practically completed — I am afraid this is the 
closest approximation possible. The astronomical theory of the 
ascending passage having pointed to a particular star has been, 
I believe, abandoned by all except certain faddists." 

Sir Robert wrote in reply (May 9th, 1910) : 

" Many thanks. But it appears to me, as it did to Sir John 
Herschel and to R. A. Proctor, that the long passage in the 
Pyramid did point to a Draconis at lower culmination, about 
3500 B.C. I do not see how anyone can dispute this. But I 
would like to be kept right. By whom has this view been aban- 
doned ? If you will look in Herschel's ' Outlines of Astronomy, 
or in Proctor's ' Great Pyramid ' (the former for choice) — it is 
only a page or two — I think you will see it is a mere matter of 
figures depending upon the precession of the equinoxes (about 
which there is no shadow of doubt) that at the time referred to 
« Draconis was the Pole Star and was (on the observed value 
of the inclination of the passage) visible at lower culmination 
from the bottom of the passage. Show me the man that denies 
this and let me at him ! That's all ! " 

His correspondent apparently took the view that the fact 
that a Draconis was visible from the bottom of the passage did 
not fix the date of the Pyramid. He wrote on May loth, 1910 : 

"Many thanks for your letter. I have read Proctor's book, 
and shall look up Sir John Herschel's reference ; but I did not, 
nor would I dare to, deny the fact that a Draconis could have 
looked down the Entrance in 3500 B.C. + fifty years — that is 
beyond yea or nay. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

" To say that therefore the Pyramid was built within these 
years is another matter — and that is what was in my mind when 
I wrote. 

"The earliest well-ascertained date in Egyptian chronology 
is 1587 B.C., that is, the beginning of the eighteenth Dynasty. 
From that backward the calculations depend on dead reckonings, 
that is, on the regnal years as given in the lists of kings totted, 
and on the Sothic periods in conjunction with one reference in 
a sixth Dynasty record ; and these have been proved by Petrie 
to check each other to within about a hundred years. So that a 
margin of error of one hundred years must be allowed in the 
dates anterior to the sixteenth century B.C. On these grounds 
the late date 3500 B.C. won't do, and it is nearer the truth to 
say that the Great Pyramid was built early in the fourth 
millennium B.C. 

" I don't think Proctor knew, and certainly Herschel did not, 
what (I believe) Petrie disclosed by his accurate measurements, 
namely, that the Entrance is twenty- four feet out of centre, that 
is, it is nearer by that distance to the east side than to the west. 
I thought that this might upset the astronomical theory that 
a Draconis did look down the passage, but that outrageous and 
soul-destroying and unreasonable assumption that ' parallel lines 
meet at infinity ' is hurled at a common-sense person, and he is 
forced to admit that that small shift of position would not alter 
the visible position of the star in relation to the Entrance! I 
am afraid the parallax is somewhat greater than that! 

" Is it not certain that the ancients could easily have oriented 
their buildings by a simpler method than by the stars ? I fancy 
they did it by the shadows. 

" To go to another subject — I have only now got hold of 
' Coke of Norfolk,' and you did not say too much for the book. 
May I in return suggest reading ' Through A fro- America,' by 
William Archer. It is a most interesting work on the negro 
problem in the States and elsewhere. 

" Another most interesting book I have lately read is ' Egypt 
in America,' which deals with the marvellous buildings of 
Mexico and Yucatan, and incidentally with modern life in these 
countries — the latter so atrocious that I have since sold out 
some shares in a Mexican railway." 

A friend having made inquiries about a book he thought 
he had lent to Sir Robert, my father wrote as follows : 

"No! I did not borrow 'Barry Lyndon' from you. I wish 
you could find the culprit. Lending books is death and destruc- 
tion. I lent some valuable books six months ago to an Indian 
student, Ram-something or other. He asked might he take 


Lowndean Professor at Cambridge 

them away with him under solemn promises. Now I hear the 
poor fellow is ill — indeed dying, I was told, in the south of 
France. The worst of it is the books we lose (i.e. lend) are 
generally the ones we can least spare. I have lots of books of 
which I have been sick of the sight for half a century. I will 
try lending them, I think. 

" I had a pleasant dinner at the Whitef riars Club on Friday. 
It consists of literary City men, and the guest of the evening 
(who was R. S. B. last Friday!) has to open a discussion on some 
subject. I took ' Wild Beasts ' as the theme. We had, to my 
consternation, Chalmers Mitchell, Secretary of the London Zoo, 
present. However, all went well, and we had a fine evening 
of it." 




I. — How Sir R. Ball began his career as a lecturer 
TT is clear from a perusal of the notes and papers which my 
-*■ father collected for the purpose of writing his "Remi- 
niscences" that he had it in mind to give a connected account 
of his experiences as a lecturer. Although he was unable to 
write the full story of this important part of his career, he did 
leave behind him certain memoranda which are of consider- 
able interest. 

So far as I have been able to ascertain, his first attempt 
at anything in the nature of a lecture was when he was an 
undergraduate in Trinity College. In the year 1859 he read a 
paper before the Philosophical Society on "The Gulf Stream," 
that " river in the ocean " of which he often used to speak 
in after life. As President of the same Society he delivered 
a learned address at the opening of the session 1860-61. 

His first appearance on the public platform took place 
on February 4th, 1869, when he lectured to the Belfast 
Athenasum on "Some Recent Astronomical Discoveries." 
With reference to this lecture I found a note among his papers : 
"I made 14s. This is the first sum I ever made by such 
lectures ! The Secretary offered more, but I refused anything 
except expenses, and the sum they sent exceeded my expenses 
by 14s. There is an excellent account of the lecture in The 
Belfast News Letter, February 5th, 1869." 

On February 13th, 1869, while he was Professor of Applied 
Mathematics and Mechanics at the Royal College of Science, 
he was invited to give a lecture in the first course of the annual 
"Afternoon Scientific Lectures," which ever since have been a 
recognised feature of the varied work of the Royal Dublin 
Society. In response to this invitation he gave a lecture on 
April 17th, 1869, entitled "Nebulae," his subject being illus- 
trated by a reproduction on a large scale of Lord Rosse's 


Lectures on Astronomy 

famous picture of the Great Nebula in Orion. What he said 
was subsequently printed. To read it now is to realise that 
even in tliose early days the power of exposition which after- 
wards rendered him famous as a public lecturer was already 
in being. In his endeavour to give those who listened to him. 
some faint idea of the distance of the Great Nebula he said : 
"It is believed most firmly by those competent to judge that 
the nebulae are plunged in the profundity of space to such an 
appalling distance that the light from some of them takes 
centuries to reach the earth. Their distances may be much 
greater, but it cannot be less than this. We see these nebulae 
not as they are, but as they were hundreds of years ago; and 
were one of these bodies to be struck from existence by the fiat 
of Omnipotence, posterity for many generations might still 
observe, measure, and draw the object long after it had ceased 
to exist ! " 

I now turn to his own account of his career as a lecturer : 

My life at Dunsink Observatory was very quiet. Possibly 
its chief interest to the readers of these Reminiscences is that it 
was during this period of my life that I began to make expe- 
ditions to England for the purpose of giving public lectures. 
I shall now explain the circumstances in which I first became 
known in some degree to the public in this capacity. 

It came about more by accident than by design. When 
I went to Dunsink I had not the slightest idea of extending 
my work beyond the confines of the observatory and Trinity 
College. What led to the enlargement of my labours I shall 
now explain. It may be remembered that when describing 
my experiences at the Royal College of Science I mentioned 
certain mechanical apparatus which I had adapted from the 
system devised by Professor Willis, of Cambridge. Having 
used this apparatus for illustrating certain evening lectures 
at the College, they apf>eared to be so successful that I sub- 
sequently undertook to give a course on "Experimental 
Mechanics." With the help of this apparatus I endeavoured 
to explain various mechanical laws. I was able to demonstrate 
some of the elementary principles on which bridges were built, 
how a crane was able to raise its load, and how a body fell 
sixteen feet in a second. 

The course seemed to do so well that I wrote to Messrs. 
Macmillan with a view to publication. I received a cordial and 



Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

sympathetic reply, of which I was very proud. Indeed, I kept 
their letter in my pocket for some days to show to my friends 
when I met them. I looked upon it as an introduction to 
authorship ! As much depended on the suitable illustration of 
the apparatus, the publishers employed an accomplished 
draughtsman, who spent some days in the College of Science, 
and made a beautiful series of sketches of the various con- 
trivances. In due course the book appeared. It was not a 
very great success; there were many things in it which I 
afterwards would have been glad to have seen otherwise. But 
it had a fair sale, and it led to a good deal of correspondence. 
In particular I received two or three inquiries from places 
in England and abroad as to where this Willis apparatus 
could be procured. Professor Loi^don, of Toronto, wrote on 
November i8th, 1872, to ask for my assistance. The most 
important application, however, came from the Midland Insti- 
tute at Birmingham. 

The Midland Institute has long been known as occupying 
a foremost position among provincial societies. It has many 
fields of activity, a large membership, and does most excellent 
work. I might mention that in 1869 Charles Dickens was 
elected its first President. Mr. Cresswell, who had charge of 
the Lecture Department, wrote to inquire where the Willis 
apparatus could be obtained, and I naturally gave him all the 
assistance in my power. Shortly after the apparatus was de- 
livered at Birmingham the authorities inquired whether I would 
come over and show them how to use it, and give some illus- 
trations of the various purposes to which it could be applied. 
This invitation came in the spring or summer of 1874, just 
at the time when I had exchanged my position of Professor of 
Mechanics at the College of Science for that of Professor of 
Astronomy in the University of Dublin. I felt that it would be a 
little awkward to give a public lecture on mechanics immediately 
after I had taken a step which seemed to indicate that the rest 
of my life was to be devoted to astronomy. I wrote to point 
out this difficulty. The answer was prompt and to the point. 
I have not kept the letter, but its purport was something to this 
effect: "All right; we understand. But why not do this: 
Come over and give us two lectures on astronomy, stay 
here for a week, and during that week give us some private 
lessons on the use of the Willis apparatus ? " I accepted this 


Lectures on Astronomy 

proposal. And that is how I came to be a public lecturer on 

That my first public lecture was given in 1874 is impressed 
on my memory from the circumstance that I chose as my subject 
a great astronomical event which occurred in that year. The 
event was the Transit of Venus. Let me explain the pheno- 
menon in a few words. As the planet Venus revolves in an 
orbit inside that of the earth, and very nearly in the same plane 
as the earth, it will sometimes happen that the planet comes 
directly between the earth and the sun. I say it sometimes 
happens, but the occurrence is very rare indeed. As a general 
rule Venus, when viewed from the earth, seems to be close to 
the sun. It seems to be over or under the sun. The appear- 
ance of Venus on the sun is very rare. 

When one transit does occur there is another eight years 
subsequently, but this pair of transits is separated by a long 
interval from the next pair. The transit of which I am speak- 
ing occurred in the year 1874, and was followed by another in 
1882, but there will be no other Transit of Venus for nearly 
one hundred years — not, indeed, until 2004 — though then there 
will be another eight years later, namely, in 2012. The interest 
taken in the transit in 1874 is therefore intelligible. It was 
one of very great importance in astronomy, as it was believed 
to afford the best means of solving that grand problem of 
Nature — the distance of the earth from the sun. It was with 
this object that Lord Lindsay sent an expedition to Mauritius. 
Nor will it be forgotten that on another occasion the famous 
voyage of Captain Cook to Otaheite in 1769 was undertaken 
with the object of determining a suitable site for observa- 
tions. The Transit of Venus in 1874 was visible from India 
and from many other places; but it was not visible from 
Great Britain. The sun was at the other side of the world 
during the critical moment when the planet passed in front 
of it. Nowadays — perhaps because the next transits can only 
be observed by our great-grandchildren — we do not take much 
interest in the subject. Indeed, I ought to say that the Transit 
of Venus, so far as it throws light on the distance of the earth 
from the sun, is no longer of much importance, as other 
methods of solving the same problem are now available; and 
though not of such great historical interest, they are believed 
to be more accurate. In 1874, however, the transit attracted 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

the attention of all who took an interest in scientific matters. 
Thus it was that the subject of my first public lecture, de- 
livered in 1874, was "The Transit of Venus." I endeavoured 
to show what the phenomenon was, how it arose, why transits 
occurred at intervals of eight years, and why it was that so 
many years intervened between one pair of transits and the 
next. I quoted the memorable passage in which the great 
astronomer Halley first explained to astronomers that the Transit 
of Venus afforded a means — till then unknown — of solving the 
problem of determining the distance of the sun, I told them how 
Halley stated this, and then recalled the somewhat pathetic words 
in which, knowing that his earthly course would have run long 
before the epoch of the transit would arise, he enjoined those 
who might be then living to spare no pains to utilise their 
opportunities to the utmost. I had prepared many diagrams, 
and I had a slide made to illustrate how eight revolutions of 
the earth corresponded to thirteen revolutions of Venus. 

The lecture, I believe, went fairly well. I was entertained 
most hospitably at the house of Mr. Follett Osier, in Harborne 
Road, Birmingham. I was also the guest for a few days of 
Mr. Alfred Elkington. Both these names suggest industries 
which are deservedly the pride of Birmingham. Mr. Osier, 
besides being well known as a manufacturer of exquisite glass, 
had attained fame as a man of science. He was the inventor of 
an anemometer which bears his name. He was a Fellow of 
the Royal Society. I especially remember these two pleasant 
visits. They were the earliest of the many occasions on 
which I have been most hospitably entertained at houses 
of kindly people to whom I was unknown otherwise than 
through the chance which brought me to lecture in their 

In the second of my two lectures at the Midland Institute 
I described some of my experiences at Parsonstown. I called 
it "A Night at Lord Rosse's Telescope." At that time the 
Midland Institute had no hall of its own, and these lectures 
were delivered in the Masonic Hall. In the interval between 
the lectures I gave the promised demonstration with the Willis 
apf)aratus. This, of course, was a private matter, at which 
only members of the class were present. In the same week 
I also went, by invitation, to the Potteries Mechanics' Institute, 
Hanley. There, too, I gave a lecture, and before going home 


Lectures on Astronomy 

I also lectured at Gloucester. This was the first of my lecture 

During subsequent years I made frequent trips to Birming- 
ham. One of these visits should be especially mentioned. In 
i88i a new hall was built by the Midland Institute. They 
paid me the great compliment of asking me to deliver the 
inaugural lecture on October 24th, 1881. It was upon this 
occasion that I first gave the lecture which was perhaps more 
widely known than any other I ever delivered. Many years 
before my valued friend, Dr. Johnstone Stoney, had given a 
lecture in Dublin which, if I remember aright, was connected 
with certain geological facts which he had observed in County 
Dublin. He chose a title suggested by certain beautiful lines 
of Longfellow.* He called it "A Glimpse through the 
Corridors of Time." Adopting this title — and I hope my 
old friend forgave me for the piracy — I announced as the 
opening lecture in the New Midland Institute Hall "A Glimpse 
through the Corridors of Time." But the subject that I was 
about to discuss was not the same as that with which Dr. 
Stoney dealt. I had what I think I may say was a far grander 
theme. It was a subject which is now pretty well known to 
those who are conversant with astronomical matters, but in 
1881 it was by no means generally known. I was fairly con- 
fident that scarcely anyone in my large audience knew much 
about it. It existed only in scientific papers published by 
the Royal Society and elsewhere, and had not, so far as I 
know, been divested of its mathematical garb and presented 
in a form which made it intelligible to the general public. 

On this occasion I did what I had not done before — I wrote 
out the lecture before it was delivered. In later years I often 
wrote out my lectures, but that was long after they had been 
given several times. Although I had written out "A Glimpse 
through the Corridors of Time," I am not at all sure that I 
read it. When lecturing to the public, it was my invariable 
practice to trust to memory for what I had to say. People who 

* "The Day is Done," v. 5. 

" Not from the grand old masters, 

Not from the bards sublime, 
Whose distant footsteps echo 
Through corridors of time." 

The use of this title for an astronomical lecture was apparently thought of on 
Jane 6th, 1879, when it is entered in his diary as " A grand subject." 

N 193 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

do not know much about lecturing have often said : " How 
wonderful it is to be able to remember all you want to say 
for an hour and a half without ever looking at a note or a 
book." The reply to such an observation obviously is : " How 
can a lecturer expect an audience to remember his lecture if 
he is unable to recollect it himself ? " My experience is that 
once the lecture has been put in order, and the lecturer has 
made up his mind as to what he wants to say, and how he 
will subdivide it, memory serves one as a matter of course. 

My manuscript of the "Glimpse through the Corridors of 
Time " passed into the hands of the Press. It was printed 
in extenso in Nature,* and was quoted from and commented 
upon far and wide.f Let me set forth in brief what the subject 
was, because it has no inconsiderable relation to subsequent 
matters in my reminiscences. 

It had been known from early times — at any rate, since the 
days of Julius Caesar — that the moon and the tides were con- 
nected. On the day of full moon the tide is high at London 
Bridge at a certain hour in the morning. A connection so 
obvious as this must have forced itself upon the attention of 
those whose livelihood was sought on the river, and to whom 
the question of the tides was one of daily importance. As 
the moon affects the earth by producing the tides, so there 
must be a reaction of the earth on the moon. I shall not attempt 
to go here into the history of this matter. That must be 
sought elsewhere. Suffice it to say that, subsequent to the 
labours of Kant, of Helmholtz, and of Purser, Professor Sir 
George Darwin, of Cambridge, the famous son of a famous 
father, undertook the investigation of this subject. He showed 
that the effect of the tides was twofold. He showed how the 
speed of the earth must be gradually diminishing, and he 
proved that the moon must be gradually getting farther away. 
Looking into the past, tracing with firm logic the conclusions 
to which mathematical theory must lead ; disdaining to allow 
his imagination to be cowed by paltry centuries or thousands 
of years of historical time ; nay, even disregarding the millions 
of years required for the geological phenomena of which the 

* The lecture seems to have created quite a sensation in Jhe office of that 
journal, for Mr. Keltie, the Editor, wrote on December 13th, i88r, "Allow me to 
congratulate you on the exhaustive success of your Tidal articles. The two Nos. 
were all sold long ago and are still abundantly inquired for." 

t It was subsequently published in pamphlet form by Macmillan and Co. (1882). 


Lectures on Astronomy 

crust of the earth gives evidence, he showed how, as we go 
back through the inimitable past, the earth was ever spinning 
more quickly and the moon was drawing ever closer and 
closer to the earth. He conjured up a vision of the time when 
the earth spun round in a few hours, and when the moon was 
quite close to it. Having arrived at this point, it was not 
difficult to imagine how the moon and the earth were originally 
one body, and that the rapid rotation of the earth was the 
cause of the detachment of the moon as a part of the original 
composite mass. Finally, he proved that during the inter- 
vening ages the tides have been gradually diminishing and 
gradually enlarging the orbit of the moon, until the moon, 
having cooled down from its original incandescence, became 
the object which, shining by reflected light, now illumines the 

My address was well received both by the audience and by 
the general public. I would not, however, have it understood 
that all I stated in that lecture met with universal acceptance. 
It led to some considerable discussion, and even my valued 
friend, the late Sir George Darwin himself, did not quite 
accept my views. 

Professor George M. Minchin wrote with reference to the 
lecture on "Time and Tide" : 

" I cannot refrain from calling your Birmingham lecture a 
singularly beautiful and instructive one. I read every word of 
it — a thing which, I really believe, I have never done with regard 
to any other lecture or paper published anywhere. 

" The whole story is the most wonderful imaginable." 

Amongst those who lectured in the new theatre of the 
Midland Institute in 1881 were my colleagues of Trinity 
College, Professors Atkinson and Mahaffy. Professor Sir 
W. F. Barrett also lectured that year. 

It certainly is not an exaggeration to say that during my 
lecture rambles I was most hospitably and most kindly enter- 
tained at hundreds of private houses. I have kept all the 
letters relating to my lecture travels, but I am sorry to say 
that I seldom kept a diary. It was only on rare occasions that 
I set down any particulars likely to be of use to me in compiling 
reminiscences. I give for what it is worth an entry in my 
diary of January 7th, 1890 : 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

" Goole. Audience of i,ooo, many turned away. A nice 
little chapel. Met here Sutcliffe, an old College of Science man, 
who got a Whitworth Scholarship, went to Bristol, and then was 
appointed to the docks here. . . . Goole is an interesting place — 
young and thriving as an American city. The coal is brought down 
in iron barges, each with thirty-five tons. These are linked together 
like a snake for draft down the canals. Each train has fifteen 
drawn by a tug. Each barge is then hoisted bodily out of the 
water on a cradle and tipped into the ship. Of course, this is 
adapted for water carriage, but the Cardiff system of dealing 
with smaller weights (eight tons) seems to me preferable. The 
lecture on ' Other Worlds * did well, but there was a mob of 
noisy school children in one part of the room. It would be 
well to issue some general order about either not admitting chil- 
dren, or at all events not allowing them to sit together. The 
chairman announced to-night that at the future lecture no chil- 
dren under fourteen would be admitted. I adhered to my box 
of slides and found them do well. The prologue on Herschel 
v/as prefaced by a little narrative of my difficulty in getting in. 
How I met a man coming away who told me that dozens had 
been turned away, and that it v/as no use for me to try to get in. 
How I went to the side door and pushed through the crowd 
and was asked for my penny, and how when I said I was 
the lecturer, the doorkeeper exclaimed : ' Go on, I have 
heard that story before ! ' Then I put in a little general talk 
about worlds before starting with Herschel. This is really a 
good plan. It is never well to commence with a piece that re- 
quires connected attention. The two interludes for ' Other 
Worlds ' were, first, the days of the week, and second, the dis- 
covery of Neptune and the star distances. By rights I should 
have given the spinning illustration, but as Goole is not a textile 
place, and as the chairman is the manager of the Lancashire and 
Yorkshire Railway, I thought the railway, with a graceful allu- 
sion to the chair, would be the most effective, and so it was." 

On one occasion I was on tour with two lectures entitled 
"The Moon" and "Krakatoa: The Mighty Volcano." Hav- 
ing, as I thought, given the last lecture of the series on 
"Krakatoa," I lent my box of slides to a friend. On arriving 
at Leeds late one afternoon, what was my horror to find the 
town placarded with the announcement that I was to lecture 
that evening on "Krakatoa"! The only slides I had were 
those which were intended to illustrate "The Moon," and, with 
the exception of one or two, they were wholly inappropriate 
to the subject upon which I was "billed" to lecture. I offered 


Lectures on Astronomy 

the secretary of the institution three alternatives : (i.) To lecture 
on the moon and call it so; (ii.) to lecture on the moon and 
call it Krakatoa; and (iii.) to lecture on Krakatoa, and illus- 
trate it as far as possible with the moon slides. The secretary 
chose (iii.)> as he said the people expected to hear about the 

Determined to do the best I could, I proceeded to the hall 
to make things ready. I asked for a terrestrial globe. Shortly 
before the lecture was timed to begin, certain assistants were 
told off to haul a huge globe up a ladder from the basement 
to the platform. It had scarcely reached the top when it fell 
with a loud crash. It was brought up again in two halves. 
I took the opportunity of saying at the commencement of my 
lecture that the globe with which I had been supplied was 
eminently suited to illustrate a lecture on volcanoes, because it 
had manifestly suffered from the effects of an earthquake itself. 
This seemed to please the audience. With the aid of the globe, 
a blackboard and some of the moon slides I managed to worry 
through. Indeed, I may say that the lecture was most 

I told them that as everyone within i,ooo miles of 
Krakatoa had been killed, either by the earthquake or the tidal 
wave which was caused by the mighty explosion, it was obvious 
they could not have photographs of what had occurred, but I 
would show them some slides which indicated that similar 
catastrophes had taken place in the moon. 

Alas ! for the treachery of memory. Sometimes in look- 
ing over my letters I read the names of places visited, of 
secretaries with whom I have corresponded, of hosts who have 
overwhelmed me with attention, but all have been forgotten.* 
Should any of my innumerable hosts and hostesses ever see 
these lines, will they kindly understand that I shall retain to 
the end of my life the most grateful and pleasant recollections 
of their unstinted hospitality, although, as I have just con- 
fessed, the details have faded from my memory ? I have often 
been filled with confusion by meeting someone who said, after 
shaking my hand, "I'm afraid you don't remember me, but 

• Amongst his papers I found a list of some of the persons whose hospitality he 
had enjoyed. It includes Mr. Alex. R. Binnie (Bradford) ; Mr. Lawson Tait 
(Birmingham) ; the Marquis of Ripon ; Dr. Gott ; Colonel Schwabe ; Mr. G. B. 
Rothera ; " Davis the Palaeontologist " ; and " the man who met me under Niagara 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

you stayed with us at so-and-so when you came there to 
lecture." Perhaps he would add: "Don't you remember Mr. 
A. or Mrs. B., whom you met? And don't you remember 
how you told this, or told that ? " Although I am quite sure 
everything he said was perfectly true, I had often forgotten the 
whole thing. 

When I think of my forgetfulness, it is some consolation 
to know that other men in other walks of life, although they 
may retain a memory of things which are a little out of the 
ordinary, sometimes fail to recollect incidents in the legitimate 
course of their daily work, even when that work is performed 
in the very best manner. Let me illustrate this with an ex- 
ample. In one of my lecture rambles I was staying at an 
important provincial town. The day was wet, but I ventured 
out in spite of the rain. Strolling along the street, I passed 
the court-house. Noticing some stir about the door, I thought 
I would take refuge from the rain and see what was going on. 
I entered the court just after the midday adjournment. I heard 
the usher calling for silence, and saw the judge reappear. I 
was greatly interested in the scene, because the judge, one of 
the most distinguished ornaments of the Bench, was an old 
college friend of mine. The prisoner, against whom things 
appeared to be going rather badly, elected to give evidence on 
his own behalf. There was the stamp of truthfulness about the 
man, and it was obvious to me that the jury were much im- 
pressed by what he said. Counsel having addressed the jury, 
the judge summed up at some length, and the jury acquitted 
the prisoner without leaving the box. It seemed obvious to 
my casual observation that in this instance the ends of justice 
were distinctly furthered by allowing the prisoner to give 
sworn testimony on hTs own behalf. Some years later, the same 
eminent judge wrote a letter to the Times in which he ex- 
pressed the view that prisoners should not be examined on oath. 
Happening to meet him about that time, I told him that I had 
read the letter, and that I could not help contrasting what he 
said in the letter with what I had actually observed in the trial 
referred to. He at once said to me : "I'm sure you are per- 
fectly right in everything you say about the trial, but I haven't 
the slightest recollection of a single incident connected with it." 
He then told me that such a failure to recollect was not unusual in 
his profession, and that, notwithstanding the intimate knowledge 


Lectures on Astronomy 

of all the facts which an acute judge may possess at the time of 
a trial, yet the moment the case is over those facts are displaced 
by others. He went on to say that although in the trial which 
I saw, substantial justice might have been attained by allowing 
the prisoner to be examined, yet there were many cases in which 
it might be necessary, if the proper questions were not asked 
by counsel, for the judge to interrogate the prisoner himself. 
In his view this placed the judge in a position which he should 
not occupy with regard to the prisoner. 

Ever since my days as Professor of Mechanics at the 
Royal College of Science I have taken a great interest in 
machinery and in manufacturing processes. Indeed, I think 
nothing is more interesting when on tour than to obtain access 
to great factories and be shown the processes which have 
brought wealth and renown to the district. Ordinary visitors 
may perhaps find some difficulty in seeing through manu- 
factories. There are many reasons for this ; a visitor makes 
demands upon the time of the owner, or of some responsible 
person. Again, visitors must take off the attention of the 
employees. Then there is another reason, not now deemed of 
such moment as it once was. The manufacturer may not like 
his works to be seen by anyone who may possibly be engaged 
in the same business as himself, and obtain hints for his 
private benefit. As a Gilchrist Lecturer, however, I could never 
for a moment be thought of as a possible competitor in business. 
It frequently happened that my host was a great manufacturer, 
and of course, in his anxiety to do everything to make my visit 
pleasant, when he found that I should like to see his works, 
everything was placed at my disposal. Once or twice when 
my host heard me express a wish to see some special industry, 
he has told me that it was impossible, as no one was ever 
admitted, the secrets being jealously guarded. However, I 
never found any disposition to refuse me when I made appli- 
cation to the place itself. Quite the reverse. Indeed, I remember 
one occasion on which the manufacturer with whom I was 
staying said he had often wished to see the works of a friend 
of his, another manufacturer in the same town, but had never 
ventured to ask for permission, and had never been invited. 
But when I asked for leave the friend said : " Oh, yes, come 
by all means; and bring your host with you." Go we did, 
and a very pleasant morning we spent there. The business 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

I refer to was exceedingly interesting. It was the manufacture 
of plate glass, and as plate glass is not made in many places 
the curious reader may possibly discover the name of the town 
to which I refer. 

I have often been in the colliery districts, in South Wales, 
in the North of England, the Midlands and Scotland. On 
several occasions I have gone down a mine. I remember once 
visiting a coal-pit where I was told I had unfortunately come 
a day too late. On the day before the directors had given a 
great banquet, not in their offices or in the town hall, but in 
the depths of the mine itself, to which the guests had all been 
lowered. The foreman who gave me this information was 
careful to impress on me that it was a "hot" dinner, though 
I could not help saying : "Why shouldn't it be hot, for surely 
there was no lack of fuel ! " 

The manager who took me down this pit told me of a re- 
markable incident that occurred there a short time before. He 
vouched himself for the truth of the story; and I set it down 
substantially as he told it to me. 

Everyone knows that coal is brought to the surface in a 
cage. The cage is raised by a wire rope which passes over 
a sheaf to the winding engine. This engine is in charge of 
a reliable man. When he receives a signal that the trucks 
of coal have been duly placed in the cage, he starts the engine 
and hauls the cage up to the top. The greatest caution is 
necessary to stop the engine at the right moment, for if the 
cage is hauled up too far there is grave risk of an accident. 
"Over-winding" used to be a fertile source of danger, though 
I believe there are automatic contrivances which have since 
diminished the risks. Men are also hauled up from the pit in 
a cage, but the speed at which they travel is very much less 
than that at which coal is raised. The speed at which coal is 
raised must be considerable, because otherwise a due amount of 
coal could not be lifted in the course of the working day, espe- 
cially if the mine is anything like half a mile deep. The rapid 
journey upwards which would not hurt the coal would not be 
suitable for human beings; and when visitors are in the cage 
great care is taken lest they experience undue discomfort, or have 
any cause for alarm. I need hardly say that this is especially the 
case when ladies are included in the party. This brings me to 
the story told by the manager. He said that some time before 


Lectures on Astronomy 

he had taken a party of visitors, including a lady, down the 
pit. They had seen the workings, and had arrived at the foot 
of the shaft for the ascent. The lady had not enjoyed the 
descent very much, and was decidedly uncomfortable about the 
return journey. The manager, however, had assured her that 
the driver of the winding engine was the most careful and 
reliable workman he had ever known, and that there was not 
the least ground for uneasiness. The cage was started on its 
quarter-mile ascent, and at first moved quite slowly; then all 
of a sudden it began to fly upwards at a most appalling speed. 
The passengers were shaken from one side to the other. 
The lady screamed with terror. Even the manager was 
alarmed. Just as they were arriving at bank the cage slowed 
down and stopped at the right place. Terribly shaken, but 
quite unhurt, the party stepped out. The manager rushed at 
once to the engine-room to administer a well-deserved reproof, 
and there, to his horror, found the engine-man lying dead 
upon the ground ! Not till the Day of Judgment will the 
secret of that engine-room be known ; but the manager him- 
self believed, and all the people in the colliery believed, the 
explanation to be this : subsequent examination showed that 
the man had died of heart disease. The theory is that, while he 
was winding the cage at the proper speed he felt the hand of 
death upon him. He reasoned in this way: "If I drop dead, 
nothing will prevent over-winding and the probable loss of 
all these lives. I may live a few seconds. My only chance 
is to wind the cage up at the maximum speed, and perhaps 
by so doing I may live long enough to bring it safely to 
bank. He did bring it safely to bank, and dropped dead 
before the manager could reach the engine-room. Such is the 
story of the winder who was truly "faithful unto death." 

n. — Lectures at the Royal Institution 
In November, 1880, after I had had some considerable ex- 
perience in the investigation of star-distances at Dunsink, I 
suggested to Mr. Warren De la Rue, who was at that time 
secretary of the Royal Institution, in Albemarle Street, that 
I should give one of the Friday evening lectures. It is well 
known that the Royal Institution has varied fields of activity. 
It was under its auspices that Davy and Faraday made their 
memorable discoveries, and in more recent years the splendid 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

traditions of the Institution, of which every Englishman is so 
proud, have been maintained by the discoveries of Lord 
Rayleigh and Professor Dewar. Only recently Professor 
Sir J. J. Thomson has succeeded to the professorial chair, 
rendered so famous by the labours of his predecessors. But 
the Institution does much else besides encourage research. 
Various courses of lectures are provided under its auspices. 
Some may be described as systematic instruction in an ad- 
vanced branch of learning of which the lecturer is a leading 
exponent. There are also what are known as "Friday Even- 
ing Lectures." On these evenings during the season the lecture 
theatre is thronged, not only with leading men of science, 
but with various eminent persons not usually seen at scientific 
gatherings. A lecture is delivered either on a discovery which 
is attracting particular attention at the moment, or on some 
matter of antiquarian interest. Literary and artistic subjects 
are sometimes dealt with. Indeed, I do not know that there 
is any restriction whatever, provided the essential condition is 
fulfilled that the lecturer is one who is able to speak with 
authority. To take one of the most conspicuous and. splendid 
examples, it was at the Friday evening lectures that Faraday 
explained to a delighted audience the results of his superb 
investigations in magneto-electricity — discoveries which have 
revolutionised the world. Visitors to the Institution are 
reminded of him by the statue at the foot of the staircase. 
He holds in his hand a representation of a coil of wire. It 
was with such a coil that he demonstrated, that, on suddenly 
thrusting a magnet in or pulling a magnet out, an electric 
current was produced. This current, it is true, is only instan- 
taneous, but with the eye of genius Faraday foresaw what that 
phenomenon might lead to. To enumerate the men who have 
given Friday evening discourses at the Royal Institution would 
be to mention all the most distinguished men of learning, past 
and present, who have been called into being since the days 
when these lectures were first started. So far as my recollection 
goes, I do not think that Darwin was ever induced to lecture 
there. Doubtless ill-health required him to abstain from work 
that a more robust man might have been able to under- 
take. These lectures are not exactly open to the public. They 
are restricted to members of the Institution and their friends, 
and they are generally followed by an informal conversazione. 


Lectures on Astronomy 

It is a time-honoured tradition that the lecture is to com- 
mence precisely on the stroke of one hour and to terminate as 
punctually as possible on the stroke of the next. Everyone who 
has ever lectured at the Royal Institution will remember the 
lecturer's little room up one flight of stairs. Many anxious 
moments must have been passed in that room, for it is there 
that many of the men whom Great Britain most delighted to 
honour must often have waited in an agony of suspense. If 
the subject is one of general interest, the theatre is crowded 
long before the scheduled time. A few seats are reserved in 
front for members specially invited; but if these are not occu- 
pied within ten minutes before nine they are open to anyone, 
and the rush from the upper seats generally conveys to the 
lecturer, quaking in his room, that the fateful moment is only 
ten minutes distant ! A minute before the hour he miist be 
ready. When the clock strikes, an attendant opens the door, 
and the lecturer, greeted with applause, advances to the table 
on which so many historic experiments have been performed. 
It is (or used to be) a tradition at the Royal Institution that 
the lecturer shall introduce as many illustrations as he 
possibly can. In former days the "illustrations" generally 
took the form of diagrams, and experiments produced by 
apparatus on the table. The magic lantern was subsequently 
used for throwing pictures on the screen ; and with the 
development of photography, and the constant increase in 
the excellence of lantern slides, this form of illustration has 
become of the utmost importance. 

I used to think that to be allowed to give one of the Friday 
evening lectures at the Royal Institution was to receive the 
blue ribbon of the lecturer. I had frequently heard some of 
Professor Tyndall's lectures in that theatre — lectures which 
have been subsequently published in his works. Tyndall, the 
pupil of Bunsen, had a special genius for work of this de- 
scription. On one occasion the great Clerk Maxwell, when 
about to give a lecture on some subject, wrote to a friend saying 
that he had been "Tyndallising " his imagination up to the 
point of being able to devise picturesque phraseology and to 
accompany it with effective experiments. 

I took great pains with the lecture which was to be de- 
livered in such a place and before such an audience. I believe 
I may say it succeeded very well — ^at least, I heard no com- 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

plaints. It was entitled "The Distances of the Stars," and was 
given on February nth, 1881. 

* * * « * 

Thus far my father's own account of himself as a lecturer. 

Mr. Coulson Kernahan has kindly supplied me with the 
following notes of a meeting with Sir Robert at the London 
Institution : 

"It was in November, 1900, I first met Sir Robert at the 
London Institution. Mr. Frazer had a committee meeting, and 
so left us to ourselves for a long time. Sir Robert said that 
the greatest living man was undoubtedly Lord Kelvin. He 
also remarked that ' Kelvin never reads ; he may now and then 
look at a number of Nature, but he positively never reads. 
Hence, when some book is brought to him by someone who 
urges him to read it, he has no standard of comparison, and 
indulges in superlatives.' I asked whether Kelvin were a 
greater or less man for not reading, and Sir Robert said 
'greater.' He then told me that next to Kelvin came Lord 
Rayleigh, who was undoubtedly the second greatest living 

"I gave Sir Robert tea, and I remember Frazer's servant 
coming to ask whether we wanted anything. He thanked her 
in the true Irish way, and said she had looked after us ad- 
mirably, and that he should tell Mr. Frazer so. I said he was 
a true Irishman, speaking as prettily as he did to a mere 
maid, and that few Englishmen would do so. ' He would 
have thanked her civilly, but not in that sunny way of yours. 
Sir Robert.' 

"'They're afraid to do so,* he replied. 'They are afraid 
someone will say that they are joking with a maid. We Irish- 
men, on the other hand, are afraid to make the most of our- 
selves. We are afraid to do what we might do.' 

"* Isn't that a good thing,' I asked, 'if it comes of diffi- 
dence ? ' 

"'But it doesn't come of diffidence,' he explained. 'It 
comes of something purely Irish, and is one of the reasons 
why we Irish don't do better for ourselves in the world.' 

"We talked of Shan Bullock, and he asked if he was like 
Jane Barlow, whom Sir Robert had read. I said, ' Shan had 
more humour.' 

"Sir Robert admires Jane Barlow's 'Irish Idylls.' 


Lectures on Astronomy 

"Next we spoke of lecturing, and I said I was making my 
first appearance that year at the London Institution. He was, 
or kindly affected to be, immensely interested, and gave me 
much valuable advice. He asked me to let him know when my 
lecture was to be given, and said he would make a special 
effort to come to hear it. I promised, but with no intention of 
keeping the promise, for I knew he was a busy, if an intensely 
generous and kind-hearted man. 

"When I met him long after my lecture had been given, 
he reproached me for not letting him know. He said he had 
read about it and was very much interested, and asked me to 
send it to him so that he could read it. Again I promised, 
but with no intention of keeping the promise, for I felt it was 
a shame to impose on his great-hearted Irish nature by bother- 
ing him with my twopenny-halfpenny lectures. He told me 
of the tons of letters he gets, some of them from the folk who 
believe the earth is flat, and said he didn't answer such letters, 
but had a big box in which he put them, calling it the 
' Paradox Box.' Then he spoke kindly of Canon Shuttleworth, 
whom I know. He also spoke of a book by De Morgan, ' A 
Budget of Paradoxes,' which he said was hard to get; and 
said if a new De Morgan turned up, these letters (in the 
Paradox Box) would be of use to him." 

III. — The Children's Lectures 

My father relates how he came to deliver lectures to 
juvenile audiences : 

I have described the commencement of my connection with 
the Royal Institution. The first course of lectures I was 
invited to give requires a little preliminary explanation. 

It was, I believe, Faraday himself who first suggested the 
"Christmas lectures." He proposed that they should be for 
young people, not for learned men of science, or even edu- 
cated adults. Faraday himself gave a famous course on "The 
Chemistry of a Candle," and many people will be familiar with 
the beautiful little volume in which he made his subject ac- 
cessible to the world at large. He began by showing what 
candles were and how they were made. He would then produce 
a collection of candles great and small, candles coloured and 
candles white. He then proceeded to explain the functions of 
the wick, and by ingenious processes to illustrate the trans- 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

formation of the wax of the candle into inflammable gases. By 
means of little tubes he drew off these gases, both to show what 
they were and to explain the chemical reactions which took 
place. His knowledge of chemistry was such that, so far from 
finding it difficult to talk for an hour, it was all he could do to 
compress his observations so as not to exceed the allotted time. 

To hear him must have been delightful, because there is 
a chorus of testimony that his powers were exceptional. Not, 
indeed, that he found lecturing an easy task. On the con- 
trary, I have always heard that to prepare a lecture was for him 
a matter of excessive labour, while its delivery was preceded by 
a period of intense mental anxiety. Faraday very properly 
assumed that one who lectures at Christmastide to a juvenile 
audience is entitled to more latitude than if he were addressing 
a Friday evening audience at the Institution. 

Many other distinguished men succeeded Faraday. Pro- 
fessor Tyndall gave the lectures on many occasions, with the 
happiest results. Professor Sir James Dewar has also under- 
taken the task. On one occasion he treated of meteorites; 
and greatly delighted one of his audience — a small child of 
my acquaintance — by a distribution which he made. He gave 
to each of the young people present a glass tube containing 
a fragment of a veritable meteorite. They were thus able 
to bear home little particles which had come from the remote 
depths of space. 

It was when I was Astronomer Royal of Ireland that I 
received an invitation from Mr. De la Rue to give the Christ- 
mas lectures. I accepted the invitation, but not without grave 
misgivings. I felt that I must emulate the great men who had 
preceded me, and do something worthy of the Royal Institu- 
tion. It was for me to interest children and young people in 
astronomy, a subject which did not appear to admit of ex- 
perimental demonstrations similar to those which the Christmas 
audience had been long accustomed to expect. Having under- 
taken the task, I worked hard to obtain a sufficient number of 
illustrations. My old friend Mr. Vincent used to say that 
Faraday had a rule that there should be one experiment every 
two minutes during the Christmas lectures. This was rather 
an exacting ideal. However, I did the best I could. It was 
a simple matter to get certain kinds of slides. I could obtain 
pictures of observatories, instruments, sunspots and lunar 


Lectures on Astronomy 

craters. Pictures of Jupiter, Venus, Mars, and of nebulas 
were also available, but at that time the dry plate had not 
taken its place in the astronomical observatory for the purpose 
of obtaining pictorial representations. Dr. Isaac Roberts had 
not commenced his astronomical career. His wondrous picture 
of the great Nebula in Andromeda, which I often showed in 
later years at the Institution, was not in existence. Although 
the foundations of the Lick Observatory had been laid at that 
time, fifteen years or more would have had to elapse before 
Professor Keeler's pictures, obtained under the most perfect 
conditions, were to reveal the wonders of the heavens. I could 
obtain no photographs of star-clusters similar to those taken 
by Professor Pickering, on some of which twenty thousand 
stars have been shown, nor pictures like those produced by 
Professor Barnard at Yerkes Observatory, in which the deli- 
cate wisps of the Milky Way are so beautifully shown. I had 
none of these adventitious aids to illustrate my first course of 
lectures at the Royal Institution. But I had invaluable help 
from everybody connected with the Institution. For the fort- 
night during which the lectures lasted, I spent the greater 
part of each day in devising contrivances which would explain 
what I had to say. To procure large wooden models repre- 
senting the instruments used in an observatory was compara- 
tively easy, but I soon discovered that people do not greatly 
care to hear about the instruments in the observatory ; what 
they do greatly care to hear is whatever you can tell them 
about the heavenly bodies, their sizes and distances. As to 
means and methods of observing, they are generally willing to 
take the word of the lecturer, and if on rare occasions scepticism 
does manifest itself, it is my experience that no illustrations of 
the methods by which the observ^ations were made will suffice to 
allay the doubts of the sceptic. 

At the time of which I write — December, 1881 — Professor 
Tyndall was in residence in the rooms at the Royal Institution 
which had formerly been occupied by Faraday. Nothing could 
exceed his kindness and readiness to help. He placed the re- 
sources of his laboratory, and practically the resources of 
London, at my disposal. I had only to say what I wanted — a 
celestial globe, the materials for red or green fire, a consignment 
of modelling clay, some gun-cotton. Whatever I asked for was 
duly provided. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

Having regard to the ages of my audience, I thought I 
could not begin with matters which were too elementary. I 
proceeded to show how the moon was lit up by the sun. 
Having procured a large indiarubber ball, I suspended it by 
a string. A beam of electric light would illuminate half the 
ball. Its brilliant side being differently exposed to persons in 
various parts of the room, the phases of the moon were seen and 
understood. To illustrate the appearance of lunar craters, I 
fashioned a round, rugged ring of modelling clay on a 
drawing-board. In the centre of the ring I placed a minia- 
ture "Matterhorn," and mounted the whole on a sheet of 
white paper. When we turned a beam of light from the lantern 
full upon this model, the mountain range forming the ring 
and the mountain peak in the centre cast shadows similar to 
those on the surface of the moon. I had a model of Saturn 
with his rings; an arrangement to illustrate an eclipse, a comet 
which gradually extended a splendid tail and then disappeared, 
a nebulous-looking object which, when shown on the screen, 
was made to transform into a cluster of stars ; and smoke rings 
which were shown in illustration of the annular nebulas. The 
colours of the rainbow led up to some slight explanation of 
how we ascertain the nature of the very substances of which 
the heavenly bodies are made. A Foucault's pendulum — that 
is to say, a large ball swung from the roof — enabled me to show 
that the earth was turning round on its axis. It was thus that 
the first lecture went through. There was a crowded house 
each day, and I believe I may say the lectures were well 
appreciated. I know I greatly enjoyed their delivery. One of 
the most interesting circumstances connected with a lecture at 
the Royal Institution is the friendly talk which always follows 
at the lecture-table. Some of the audience come to shake hands 
and exchange a few words with the lecturer. Many interest- 
ing people thus make themselves known. At the Christmas 
lectures, in particular, many young people would timidly ap- 
proach to have a closer look at something on the table, or to 
ask a question. Half an hour was pleasantly spent this way 
after the lecture was formally closed. This miniature levee 
downstairs was generally followed by another upstairs in the 
lecturer's room. 

It was several years after my first course of Christmas 
lectures at the Royal Institution that I was asked to give a 


Lectures on Astronomy 

second. The genial Sir Frederick Bramwell was at this time 
secretary, and to his courteous invitation, which reached me 
in June, 1891, I replied that in the former course I had given 
a set of six lectures on the sun, moon and stars, and the sun, 
moon, stars, etc., were still just the same as they were on the 
former occasion ! In his reply he admitted that the heavenly 
bodies had undergone no change ; but he pointed out that an 
entirely new generation of boys and girls had since sprung 
up, and that, even though the lectures did traverse much of 
the same ground, yet that they would be new to this second 
crop of young hearers. This argument was unanswerable, and 
a second course of lectures was given. Some of the illustra- 
tions, I have no doubt, were the same, but they were added to, 
and I hope improved upon. The attendance was large, though 
possibly not larger than formerly. Once or twice since I have 
given these courses of Christmas lectures. And here I would 
point out that of the eight hundred people or so who thronged 
the theatre on these occasions all were not juveniles. To de- 
scribe the lectures as "Lectures to Children" is by no means 
correct. Perhaps a fourth of the whole number was what might 
be called young people; possibly a certain fraction of these 
might be described as "children," though I do not exactly know 
at what age the term "child" ceases to be applicable at the 
Royal Institution. But the audience was always very inte- 
resting. Composed as it was of people possessing an almost 
infinite variety of intellectual attainment it was calculated 
to put the lecturer in a position of some difficulty. Perhaps the 
best plan to adopt is to commence the first lecture as a friend 
of mine once did. He said: "The lecture is addressed to 
children. I observe that a great number of elderly relatives and 
a large number of adults who have no children to look after 
are also present. Well, children, you and I will not mind all 
these grown ups if they will only behave themselves properly ! " 
He thus established himself on quite a satisfactory footing with 
his class. 

It is almost impossible to give statistics of the people who 
were present, but it may give some idea of the varied audi- 
ence who honoured me by their presence if I say that at one 
lecture at the Institution I happen to know that there were 
present— a child of eight years old, Sir Squire and Lady Ban- 
croft, Madame Albani, Madame Antoinette Sterling, the Presi- 

O 209 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

dent of the British Association, and the Lord Chancellor. I 
received the following letter from Madame Albani (January loth, 
1893) : 

"I attended your Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution 
lately, and I cannot help writing to tell you how much I enjoyed 
them, and to thank you for having given us such an intellectual 
treat. I was most interested (as were my boy and husband), 
throughout, quite as much as if the lectures had been on music, 
and was only too sorry when they were all over. 

" I ventured to shake hands with you after the last lecture on 
Saturday, but my delight at the subject, and the way in which 
all was explained, must be my excuse for the liberty I took." 

In circumstances like these, repeated with innumerable 
variations every day, a lecturer might well feel embarrassed. 
He would scarcely know what to say and what to leave unsaid. 
He had, however, this much to console him : that if he were 
taxed with the fact of having said things which were too easy, 
or too absurdly difficult, he could at once reply that it all 
depended on which part of the audience might at the moment 
be presumed to be listening to him. 

On only one occasion during my lectures did anything in 
the nature of a mishap take place. This was many years ago. 
It was of a very trivial nature, but it might have been very much 
the reverse. The galleries of the Royal Institution have been 
altered, so that exit from them would now be quite easy in the 
event of any emergency. Before the alteration, alarmists were 
constantly writing to the papers. Once or twice letters appeared 
in the Times calling attention to the dreadful consequences 
which would ensue if there were a panic. One such letter had 
appeared on the morning of a day on which I was to lecture, 
the time of the lecture being, as usual, three o'clock in the 
afternoon. The matter was therefore somewhat on my nerves, 
especially when I saw that the room was crowded. A small 
spirit-lamp, which had been placed on the table for some experi- 
ment, was upset when a piece of apparatus was being moved. 
The burning spirit ran on the cloth, and an ineffectual attempt 
to blow it out made things rather worse. The lights being low 
at the moment, the flame of the burning spirit was visible 
everywhere, and it appeared to be extending. One or two 
people uttered slight exclamations; and I must say that I 
spent an exceedingly awkward half-minute, until some lady — 


Lectures on Astronomy 

an unknown friend whom I never identified — stepping up be- 
hind me, threw her cloak over the fire and instantly put it 
out. The incident was mentioned in the papers next day, and 
it caused me no little distress. It is satisfactory to think that, 
with the means of egress now provided, there is no cause for 
any further uneasiness. The effect on the next lecture was, 
however, a bigger audience than ever ! The poor assistant, 
as I heard afterwards, got a terrible wigging from the authori- 
ties. I intervened at once to point out that it was I and 
not he who upset the lamp. But the real cause of trouble was 
having that common, foolish, and dangerous sort of spirit-lamp 
there at all. It was entirely contrary to the rules to allow such 
a thing in the place, and Professor Dewar said he did not even 
know how it got there. 

Though I think I may say the Christmas lectures were 
always very well attended, the theatre being usually crowded 
long before the time of the lecture, I don't think any of them 
had quite the "go" of that first course. 

I remember once being at a lecture there by Professor Abel. 
He had a very innocent-looking cylinder on the table, with 
a cock in it of a particular construction, and he told us that 
the cylinder was full not, indeed, of gunpowder, but of ex- 
ploded gunpowder, and that he was relying on the strength 
of the cylinder to keep in the tremendous pressure of gases 
inside. He drew off these gases from time to time through the 
cock to analyse them for our instruction, and a most interest- 
ing lecture came to a close without anything happening to 
alarm anyone. One of the ladies present, however, told me 
afterwards that she was engaged mentally during the lecture 
in thinking at what part of the roof it would be that she would 
make her exit when the explosion came, as come it would she 
most firmly believed ! 

* * » * ♦ 

Some account of what my father said in one of his Christ- 
mas lectures is to be found in a letter to Mr. T. Hanson Lewis 
(June 5th, 1901) : 

"I rather drew them at one of my Christmas lectures by 
asking what message they wanted to signal to Mars, and I said 
it would be quite possible to guess the signal that they would 
send to us. To an assembled conclave of expectant listeners the 
first message to arrive would certainly be 'Are you there?' It 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

would be possible to signal to Mars if you could wave a flag 
the size of Ireland, or, as I have suggested more recently, if 
Lake Superior were covered with petroleum and set on fire, it 
would be visible to those who had good telescopes on Mars." 

Sir Charles Ball has supplied me with the following account 
of the origin of "Starland" : 

"Shortly before he delivered the Christmas lectures in 1887, 
which were — in the main — a. repetition of those delivered in 
188 1, a well-known publisher called on Sir Robert and asked 
permission to send a reporter to take down the lectures 
verbatvm, with a view to their publication in book form. He 
said he would leave it to the lecturer to name his own terms 
for this privilege. My brother demurred, saying that he some- 
times said things in his lectures which he would not desire to 
see in a book. 

"'These,' said the publisher, 'are precisely what we want 
to catch ! ' " The shorthand note was taken and transcribed. 
Largely re-written, it formed the basis of * Starland.' " 

Some time after that book appeared (in 1889) my father 
prepared the follow^ing memorandum : 

"I would like to put on record a word or two with regard 
to my little volume, ' Starland.' It has excited so much inte- 
rest, and is having such a wide circulation, that its author may 
very well feel gratified at its success. The wish has been ex- 
pressed that I should explain the origin of this book, and 
though I am naturally reluctant to enter into matters of a 
personal character, yet there are sufficient reasons why it is 
desirable to give an authentic account of the matter. 

"I have frequently been requested to recommend some easy 
book that would be suitable for those who wish to learn about 
the stars. It was to be in simple language, so that young 
people should find it readable and interesting, and it was also 
to be inexpensive. People who did not wish to pay a pound 
for a work on astronomy told me they would be quite willing 
to give five or six shillings, provided the work would tell them 
and their children what they wanted to know in a sufficiently 
pleasing manner. I knew, of course, there were many ad- 
mirable treatises on the science of astronomy in the market, to 
many of which, I ought to add, I am myself constantly in- 
debted; but I often found great difficulty in selecting one which 
would combine all the wants expressed by my correspondents. 


Lectures on Astronomy 

Some were too deep and difficult, and some were too dear ; some 
were too large, while others did not make the subject sufficiently 
interesting. I therefore ventured to try and write a book 
niyself which would supply the want so universally experi- 
enced. The volume * Starland ' was the result. How far it 
has succeeded it is hardly for me to say." 

He sent a complimentary copy of "Starland" to Mr. Glad- 
stone (who was then Prime Minister), and received the following 
reply (May 9th, 1889) : 

" I am greatly obliged by the gift of your volume which 
reached me last night, and I have already ascertained for myself 
that it is not less interesting than beautiful. I hope to profit 
much by it." 

A little later Mr. Gladstone wrote again : 

"I have now finished reading your luminous and delightful 
' Starland,' and I am happy to be, in a sense, enrolled among 
your pupils ; for although I have been fond of mathematical 
subjects in my day, I am now glad to have everything imparted 
to me in the form in which it makes a minimum demand upon a 
diminishing stock of brain power. I am enormously grateful 
for your notable and successful efforts to bring yourself down 
within reach of feeble or sluggish minds. The worst of the 
matter is, from your point of view, that I am too much im- 
pressed to leave off here with simple thanks, while I am afraid 
I must still postpone for a time the perusal of your larger works. 
But I am tempted to mention to you an address by M. Janssen 
to the French Academy (of which he is a member), which he 
was kind enough to give me last year, termed L'Age des Etoiles. 
It was to me extremely interesting, but of course I am no judge 
of its merits. It uses more largely than your lectures the aid of 
spectral analysis in relation to the ages of the heavenly bodies. 
If you would like to see the address I shall have great pleasure 
in sending it for your perusal, and if you thought it of value, 
I would endeavour to procure you a copy. 

"When I first became Chancellor of the Exchequer, I found 
that the Bank of England and the Treasury used tiie letter ' M ' 
as a convenient abbreviation for £100. For my own convenience 
I improved (as I thought) upon this by adopting ' M ' with a 
tail — very easily written — for a million ; and though financial 
demands rarely ran so high, I have gone a step further and 
thought of (M) as equal to MM, or the French milliard. It 
would be more scientific to make this symbol stand for MM ; 
but it is an extravagance suited only to astronomical distances. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

It occurs to me that symbols of this kind (replacing £ by miles) 
might be of some use perhaps in writing such distances. 

"Your books bring other subjects to my mind, and make me 
think that the teachers of the uniformity of Nature sometimes 
press rather hard upon us the common herd. If our moon does 
not revolve upon its own axis, if the moons of Uranus (I wish 
it had been Ouranos) describe circular orbits, and those of Mars 
travel eastwards, a very elastic definition of this uniformity seems 
needed to cover such varieties. 

" Pray do not take the trouble to notice any of these stray 
remarks, unless you would like to see M. Janssen. 

"W. E. Gladstone." 

The Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr. Benson) also received 
a copy. His letter of thanks (dated December 30th, 1889) con- 
tained the following passage : 

"Knowledge, even a little, of the stars always seems to me 
to stretch the ideas of young folks in the healthiest and grandest 
way. I thank you for believing that I should care to see this 
beautiful book which will, I am sure, have this effect ; it is my 
next present to a boy." 

I do not propose to give particulars of the various editions, 
but about nine years after the first edition appeared Sir Robert 
wrote to Dr. Rambaut (December 30th, 1898) : 

"I have an urgent letter from the Editor of Cassell's to say 
that they have * quite run out of " Starland." ' Whether they 
were hunted out by the Bull or v/hether it was the charms of 
Virgo, or from what other cause they had to make the run, does 
not appear, but the moral is that they must go to press forth- 
with, and that they don't want too many changes." 

IV. — The Gilchrist Lectures 

For many years I lectured for what is known as the Gilchrist 
Trust. It may be interesting to give a short history of this 
Trust, and to explain its functions. 

It appears that many years ago a sum of money was be- 
queathed by a Mr. Gilchrist to trustees, the interest to be 
employed in any manner the Trust deemed advisable for the 
diffusion of knowledge. Mr. Gilchrist had himself a somewhat 
remarkable career. He at first wrote books for the assistance of 
students who were learning the Indian languages. He subse- 
quently founded a bank. At the time of his death, however — 
and, indeed, for many years afterwards — the funds which came 


Lectures on Astronomy 

to the hands of the trustees were comparatively insignificant. 
But one or two portions of his property which were at first 
thought to be of no great moment, underwent a phenomenal 
development. For instance, in the course of his banking opera- 
tions it appears that someone became indebted to him in the 
amount of ^17 los. The debtor, not being able to discharge 
his liability in cash, offered to Gilchrist, in lieu of the debt, 
some property which he had in Australia. This consisted of 
a strip of land fronting on Sydney Harbour, which must 
apparently at that time have been deemed to be of little value. 
Indeed, for a long time it was absolutely unproductive. After 
Gilchrist's death the trustees came into the possession of this 
land as part of his property. They were warned that unless 
they went to the expense of putting a fence around the property 
it would suffer from encroachment. I have been told that they 
regarded the expenditure as probably quite unproductive ; 
indeed, they would not have entertained the question of the 
fence, had they not been advised that it was their duty as 
trustees to do everything necessary to keep the property 
together. The fence was accordingly put up, but many years 
elapsed before any result was derived from it. At length, 
when Sydney underwent great extension this property came 
to be required. The result was that a piece of real estate which 
had originally been purchased for ;^i7 los. brought in no less 
than ;^7o,ooo to the Gilchrist Trust ! The bank which Gilchrist 
founded also prospered, and was, I believe, the nucleus of the 
Commercial Bank of Scotland. Eventually the trustees found 
themselves in possession of an income of some three or four 
thousand a year. Part of this money was devoted to scholar- 
ships, and, as was quite seemly in the circumstances, some of 
the funds so allocated were expended in Australia. But my 
concern at present is with that part of the business of the 
Gilchrist trustees, which undertook the providing of lectures to 
be delivered in various towns in Great Britain. 

From the first it was the policy of the trustees to 
send their lecturers to small places rather than to great 
centres of population, where it might be presumed local re- 
sources would provide lecturers. I do not for a moment say 
that the Gilchrist lecturers did not often go to large towns ; 
I myself frequently lectured in London for this Trust. Generally 
speaking, however, we were asked to lecture in small towns 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

in the manufacturing districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire. 
As soon as the work of the Trust became known, and the lectures 
in one town had been heard of by residents in the neighbour- 
hood, a considerable demand sprang up, and the Trust received 
innumerable applications. The arrangements, speaking gener- 
ally, were something like this : A committee had to be formed 
in the town to guarantee the provision of a hall and a lantern 
— if a lantern were required. The committee also undertook 
the advertisement and management of the lectures. The 
secretary of the Trust then visited the town to inspect the 
lecture hall. The conditions with regard to the hall were 
modified according to circumstances. It was generally stipu- 
lated that the hall should be large enough to provide 800 seats. 
If it were large enough to hold more, the committee was able 
to treat the excess as reserved seats, and make what charge 
they pleased for them. It was, however, imperative that the 
reserved seats should not be put in the best parts of the hall, 
to the exclusion of the penny seats, which were specially in- 
tended for the working classes. The proceeds were paid to 
the local committee, and it not infrequently happened that they 
derived some profits from the course, which were generally 
applied to providing similar lectures on subsequent occasions. 
All their conditions being complied with, the trust undertook 
to defray all expenses connected with the lecturer. The late 
Mr. Richard A. Proctor — a well-known writer on astronomy — 
was a very popular Gilchrist lecturer. I heard him two or three 
times in Dublin, where he came in response to the invitation of 
the Royal Dublin Society. He possessed considerable literary 
power, and his lectures, which were delivered in admirable 
language, were frequently adorned by apt poetical recitation. 

My connection with the Gilchrist Trust came about as 
follows : I received a letter from my old friend, Dr. W. B. 
Carpenter, who was at that time secretary to the trust, in which 
he told me that Proctor was about to start on a lecturing tour of 
the world, which would involve his absence for two or three 
years. Dr. Carpenter asked me if I would undertake the 
Gilchrist lectures in Proctor's absence. I gladly accepted the 
invitation, and thus became connected with the Gilchrist Trust, 
a connection which remained unbroken for some twenty years. 
It is bound up in my memory with innumerable pleasant 


Lectures on Astronomy 

Dr. Carpenter invited me to take a circuit. How well I 
recollect the towns in that circuit, and many of the circumstances 
connected with them ! Indeed, I recall the incidents of my 
first Gilchrist lectures far better than I am able to recall many 
similar lectures of a much more recent date. The towns 
in the circuit were Rochdale, Accrington, Huddersfield, 
Preston and Bury. My first Gilchrist lecture was at Rochdale, 
on January 27th, 1880. The chairman was Mr. Petrie, the 
mayor of the town. He was also my host. I should mention 
here that when the Gilchrist trustees send their lecturer to a 
town, it is generally understood that some local magnate — by 
preference the chairman for the evening's lecture — is to act as 
host. Thus it almost always happened in my Gilchrist ex- 
periences that I was the guest of some interesting person. 
Occasionally I was forced to obtain accommodation at a hotel, 
but this was rare, and I always preferred going to a private 

In the early days the local people were often in doubt as 
to whether the Gilchrist lectures would be sufficiently patronised 
by the working classes for whom they were intended. In illus- 
tration of this I may recall what happened at Blackburn. The 
day was deplorably wet, and the state of the weather, together 
with the result of the mayor's own inquiries, had led him lo 
fear that there would be but a small attendance. It was my first 
visit to Blackburn, and the kindly mayor was very anxious 
that the lecture should be a success. He seemed to apprehend 
that I would feel that I had been treated with scant courtesy 
if there were not a full house. The rain got steadily v.orse in 
the afternoon, and when we started for the hall after dinner the 
mayor's prognostications became so gloomy that I endeavoured 
to cheer him up. But with no great success. Eventually, when 
we reached the vicinity of the hall and saw no crowds pouring 
in — saw no one, in fact, with the exception of a couple of 
policemen standing outside the door in the drenching rain — 
he became desperate and said : " I knew it would be so ; the 
thing is a total failure ! 

"Is there anyone inside?" he called out to the policemen. 
The answer was : "We turned away two hundred half an hour 
ago, as the place was packed ! " This was, indeed, the general 
experience of those who gave Gilchrist lectures; house packed 
and every inch of standing room occupied. I generally went 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

to the hall at least twenty minutes before the hour fixed for 
the lecture. On one occasion — I do not remember the time or 
place — the chairman, secretary, and lecturer were all in attend- 
ance twenty minutes before the appointed time. The place was 
crammed to the very door. "What is the use of waiting?" 
said the chairman. "Not a single human being can get in." 
We accordingly commenced the proceedings. 

When the Gilchrist Trust first proposed to send lecturers 
up and down the country, there were some who thought it 
might be difficult to dispose of eight hundred seats at a penny 
each. Their doubts were dispelled when the reputation of the 
lectures began to spread. I never witnessed the distribution of 
the tickets ; this always took place long before I arrived on the 
scene, but I have heard wonderful accounts of the crowding and 
crushing which attended their sale when the day of issue 
arrived. I have also been told fabulous stories of the amount at 
which the penny tickets would change hands as the time of the 
lecture approached. The reserved seats also, no matter what 
price was put upon them, generally sold very well. I had 
frequent applications from people who complained of being 
unable to procure tickets. Of course, this had nothing to do 
with me, though sometimes w^hen the application was one that 
captured my fancy I have gone so far as to tell the secretary that 
the lecture would not begin until a particular person got a seat. 

I do not wish it to be understood that the lectures were 
always well attended. That is not the case. I have sometimes 
— but, indeed, I must add very rarely — seen the hall half empty. 
I can recall two cases in which this occurred, and, strange to 
say, they were both in large places. It would seem that in the 
small towns the fact that there was to be a lecture became 
known to every man, woman, and child. 

For many years a large proportion of the Gilchrist lectures 
were delivered in towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire. I have 
counted as many as two hundred places in these two counties 
where I had myself lectured for the Gilchrist Trust. Gilchrist 
lecturers were not often sent a second time to the same town ; 
but this did happen sometimes, and I have known places where 
even three visits have been paid.* 

* The following is a list of towns in which he lectured in 1890 : Long Eaton, 
Leven, Whitehaven, Mossley, Greenock, Barrow, Eccleshill, St. Helens, Pontefract, 
Dumbarton, Glossop, Middleton, Coatbridge, Northwich. 


Lectures on Astronomy 

I here copy some notes from a diary of a Gilchrist tour : 

"Yorkshire by some means manages to secure half the 
total number, leaving- the other half for the rest of England, 
the whole of Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and the Channel Islands. 
The equity of this is not obvious. The other places say it is 
because Yorkshire wants enlightening so much. The Yorkshire 
people say it is because they are so capable of appreciating the 

" Lady Ripon told me that Gladstone talks little or no politics 
at home. He is always full of the last book he has read. Just 
then it was the life of Dabney. Dabney was the planter and 
slave-owner who was a hero in prosperity, and when adversity 
came would not let his daughter touch the washtub, but did 
the washing himself. The old man felt so proud when he got 
the linen white ! Lady Ripon said that Gladstone spoke of this 
book with such enthusiasm that the tears streamed down his 
cheeks. It was published by Dabney's daughter in America, 
and Gladstone wrote to ask her if he might get it published 
here, and begged her merely to say the word by wire, "Pro- 
ceed," if she consented. She had done so. Mem. to get the 

"At Chipping Norton it appears that my lecture was suffi- 
ciently popular to attract a very respectable fraction — one-eighth 
— of the population. It has 4,000 inhabitants. Mr. Donelly, 
the secretary, is the manager of a branch of Gillett's Bank there. 
Mr. Bliss, my host, is a good raconteur. His description of 
the origin of the Chipping Norton Tweed Mills (the only mill 
in the place), which he owns, was good. His great-grandfather 
travelled for his great-great-grandfather, a worsted manufac- 
turer, in the West of England. While on his rounds he fell 
in love with the innkeeper's daughter at Chipping Norton. His 
father sent him back to break off so inappropriate a match. The 
old innkeeper offered to give the young couple money enough 
to start a woollen business in Chipping Norton ; and so it 


• « » « « 

V. — His Methods as a Lecturer 
My father never used any notes when addressing an audi- 
ence. By degrees, however, he reduced all his better-known 
lectures to writing. Of these there are two typewritten copies 
in existence ; but they are prefaced by a desire that they should 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

not be published. He adhered more or less faithfully to what 
he had written down, but was always trying to improve. 

On one occasion he was invited to address those who were 
interested in the University Extension Lecture movement. The 
following is a copy of some notes he compiled for the purpose : 

"Always try to improve. No matter how often a lecture 
has been given, you should sit down the next morning — or, 
better still, the very same night — go over every point, and see 
how you can do it better next time. Don't imagine I always 
do this myself; but as Puddn'head Wilson says in his immortal 
Calendar : ' To be good is noble ; to teach others to be good 
is nobler still, and less trouble.' 

"The problem that confronts the lecturer is often a com- 
plex one. Here again, Mr. Chairman, I would have you 
excuse me if I talk about my own case. I lectured last winter 
at the Royal Institution. The lectures were supposed to be for 
a juvenile audience, and there were about two hundred juveniles 
each day. They were about one-fourth of the audience ! 

" I have often been asked : * Do you not get weary lecturing 
night after night ? ' My reply was : * Ask the good golfer if 
he gets weary hole after hole. Ask " W. G." if he gets weary 
century after century. When you have some skill in your art 
the exercise of it is delightful.' " 

He took the greatest pains to have his slides as complete 
and as perfect as possible, sparing no expense. If the slides 
were to be exhibited by a local man who was not familiar with 
astronomical matters, my father would find time to give him 
some preliminary drill. He would say {inter alia): "There 
are eight ways of putting a slide into a lantern, seven of which 
are wrong ! " He was always ready, however, to make allow- 
ances for inexperience and to forgive a fault. Writing to 
Dr. Rambaut on March 2nd, 1899, he said : 

" Unless I warn him beforehand, the man at the lantern will 
probably make the moon go round the earth as if he were grind- 
ing coffee for a wager ! However, when I feel inclined to abuse 
one of these poor chaps, I am reminded of the just retort of 
the Irish railway porter who, when expostulated with by some 
sensitive passenger on the diabolical accent, the vile intonation, 
and the utter unintelligibility of the way in which he bawled out 
' Bootherstown,' said, ' You don't expect a primer donner at 
twenty-four shillings a week, do ye ? ' So if the lanternist were 
really competent to interpret the lecturer, the pence at one end 


Lectures on Astronomy 

of the hall, and the pounds on the platform would have to be 
more equally distributed. Another terrible infirmity to which 
blundering lanternists are prone is to miss a slide out of its 
proper place. This is most confusing, and sometimes gives the 
lecturer away horribly. But it is nothmg to the frightful disaster 
which occurs if the man, discovering his error a little later, shoves 
the slide in somewhere else. I had an awful experience of this 
lately which ruined the effect of a peroration ! " 

When my father gave his lecture "A Universe in Motion," 
which involved the use of a number of elaborate mechanical 
slides, he generally employed Mr. J. W. Garbutt, of whose 
skill at the lantern he always spoke in the warmest terms. 

He always regarded lecturing as much more satis- 
factory than writing articles. In a letter to Dr. Rambaut on 
October 17th, 1897, he said : 

" Lecturing is a more permanent source of income than writ- 
ing, for the same lecture will be available scores of times, while 
there is (or ought to be) a limit to the number of times the same 
thing can be written. Then, too, lecturing is an amusing occupa- 
tion, a rest and a change; but writing articles, even if dictated 
to a typewriter, I have ever found an awful grind." 

His numerous platform engagements necessitated a vast 
amount of correspondence with which he dealt according to a 
system of his own devising. He had made to order a large 
number of books with brown paper leaves. Into these he would 
paste letters and papers of every description, not according to 
any regular classification, but, in spite of that, he always 
knew that any paper of importance was there, and that, aided 
by the index to each volume, it could be found after a brief 
search. When his engagements as a public lecturer began to 
increase, he adopted the plan of setting apart a particular page 
for each lecture. Everything, no matter how seemingly un- 
important, would be crammed on to that page, each letter and 
document being fastened down by one corner, so that the letter 
beneath it could be read. Here are the contents of one such 
page : (a) A letter inviting him to lecture ; (b) a copy of his 
reply stating his terms (and they were by no means easy terms) ; 
(c) the letter of acceptance ; (d) a copy of his reply setting forth 
his requirements as to lantern, blackboard, etc.; (e) a copy 
of his letter to his assistant who managed the lantern; (J) a 
letter of invitation from some local magnate offering hospitality; 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

(g) his reply; (h) the printed circular or other announcement 
(not excluding, sometimes, a poster six feet square) relating to 
the lecture ; (t) a page from Bradshaw having marked upon it 
the train by which he would travel ; (;) a ticket for the lecture ; 
(k) the letter which accompanied the cheque for the lecturer's 
fee; (/) a press-cutting of the lecture as delivered; (m) a copy 
of his letter returning thanks for hospitality; and (w) (fre- 
quently) one or more letters from members of the audience who 
had appreciated the lecture. 

Members of his family used sometimes to poke fun at his 
"system," which led to the accumulation in his study of thirty 
or forty enormous volumes. He would counter the attack by 
the hoary old joke : " Did you ever hear how the firm of 
Messrs. Brown, Jones and Robinson made a large fortune in 
the City?" Without giving time for a reply, he would go 
on : "By minding their own business." 

His daughter (now Mrs. Joseph Barcroft) acted for many 
years as his amanuensis. On one occasion, in her absence, 
a lady friend volunteered to do the work. 

He wrote to my sister : 

"Your fame as -my secretary and the depth of distress to 
which it is supposed I am being reduced, by your absence led 

to make a most sporting offer to take your place. I 

declined her kind offer. 

" But it was very kind and thoughtful of her, and I really 
felt greatly obliged. The fact is that just at this time there 
are very few letters. I am off with the old love (the old lecture 
book) and not yet on with the new, I have, indeed, plenty of 
writing to do at this moment. But it is of this kind : 

(AB - CD) (PX^ + QY^ + 2RXY) = O 

for I am in the middle of my mathematical lectures. Indeed, 
just now I hear that I am to have a new class consisting of Mr. 
Berry, Mr. Richmond, and Mr. Whitehead. And I am to give 
them nine lectures. Is not that something to work for ? " 

In 1889 one of his colleagues in Trinity College, Dublin, 
who evidently aspired to success on the lecture platform, wrote 
to ask my father how he managed his lecture tours. He 
replied thus (May 14th, 1889) : 

"The plan I adopt is as follows. Formerly I used to make 
several visits in the winter to England, but last year, with great 


Lectures on Astronomy 

advantage, I made only two trips, one occupying the greater part 
of November, the other a fortnight in January. 

" The latter was managed entirely by the Gilchrist Trust, 
and all I do is to go to the towns that they indicate. They 
are generally very small places. 

" The November trip I managed myself. I get many letters 
asking me to lecture here and there, and I reply naming the date 
that suits me. If it suits them, well and good. If not, I don't 
go. Thus next November I intend to begin in the north and 
work gradually downwards ; that is, of course, assuming that I 
get the invitations that usually come in during the summer. I 
have, however, often had to make long journeys so as to utilise 
the time to the utmost. 

" There are, I believe, agencies which profess to work lectures 
here as they do in America, and I know of a very respectable 
man — a Yankee, I believe — who is occasionally employed by 
Institutions to procure courses of lectures for them, and he has 
occasionally offered me engagements which I have accepted with 
satisfactory results, but I only deal with him (so far as time, etc., 
is concerned) just as I would with the secretary of the Institution 
he is acting for, were he to apply to me direct." 

He once missed a lecture through no fault of his own. On 
the only route by which he could travel from Cambridge to 
Walsall the rails were washed away by a flood. His telegram 
announcing the calamity was read to the disappointed audience 
by the chairman, who aptly said that "the stars in their courses 
had fought against the astronomer." 

Although in all his numerous journeys in many parts of 
England he never managed to get into a railway accident, he 
came very near it on one occasion. The incident is thus re- 
corded in his diary : 

"On Tuesday last, January 21st, 1890, a curious accident 
happened to the train in which I was travelling. The Hudders- 
field correspondent of the Central News thus describes it : 

While the express train from Manchester to Leeds was 
travelling through (this is not correct; we had not reached 
the station) Marsden Station, the driver fancied something 
was wrong with his engine and pulled up. It was then dis- 
covered that the right centre driving-wheel had broken clean 
off from the axle, and it was actually found some 260 yards 
away, in a field. The engine had only recently been turned 
out new from Crewe, and was on the newest bogie principle.' " 

Only once was my father compelled to disappoint an audi- 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

ence by illness. That was on February 7th, 1884, when he had 
to cancel a lecture owing to an attack of lumbago. He had at 
that date given over seven hundred lectures. 

At an early period he sometimes lectured on Sundays, but 
latterly he made a strict rule to observe the Sabbath in this 
respect. In 1899 the president of a Sunday lecture society in 
the Midlands invited him to lecture to 3,500 people. In proffer- 
ing the invitation the president said : 

" Our success, increasing year by year, has been attained with- 
out our having had the advantage of a prosecution by the L.D.O. 
Society. I happen to know that they have sent spies to watch 
us. Knowing this, one opening night at the Grand Theatre I 
deliberately opened our coat-tail to its widest capacity, and 
ostentatiously trailed it ; the only result was a letter in the papers 
saying that they were not going to trouble us. Independently 
of their not daring to do so, which makes us perfectly safe here, 
they would have no legal ground. We do not charge entrance ; 
certain parts of the house are reserved for our members, but no 
money is taken at the doors ; and the rest is free for as many 
as can get in. Of course, I am asking you to come professionally. 
If, as I trust, you can come, please let me know what your fee is." 

Sir Robert wrote in reply : 

" I have so many pleasant recollections of lectures in Birming- 
ham that I greatly regret to have to refuse the invitation with 
which you have honoured me. It would indeed have been a great 
pleasure to me to have opened your course in the theatre. 

" But several years ago I gave up Sunday lectures, and though 
I have had a good many invitations to renew them since, I have 
always declined." 

He generally declined to lecture without fee, and the occa- 
sions upon which he did so were somewhat rare, at any rate 
in the early years. His reason is adumbrated in a letter written 
in 1880 to a lady who had asked him to lecture for nothing : 

" I hardly know whether I quite understand the nature of the 
invitation to lecture at Weston. I certainly do often lecture in 
England, but then it is always on behalf of a certain married 
lady with five children who is solely dependent upon her hus- 
band for support. To speak plainly, I cannot afford the time 
to ^we. lectures unless I am well paid for them." 

In later years, however, he gave several lectures at Cam- 
bridge and elsewhere on behalf of the Missions to Seamen. 
This was partly due to the fact that his wife was for many years 


Lectures on Astronomy 

treasurer of the Cambridge branch of that excellent institution. 
His last lecture in London was for the R.S.P.C.C. 

He was generally introduced to his audience by a chairman. 
Having regard to his great popularity as a lecturer, this 
formality may appear to have been unnecessary. The reason 
why he never objected to being thus introduced stands revealed 
in a letter to a friend : 

" I like chairmen ; in fact, I doat on them ; not quite so em- 
phatically as Professor Blackie, who, when lecturing at New- 
castle-on-Tyne in a theatre on Sunday night, was so delighted 
with himself and his audience that he declared he must kiss 
someone. Whereupon, amid a hurricane of applause and yells 
of delight, he hugged and kissed the unhappy chairman! But 

I won't kiss , I can tell you, not if I know it. Put his wife 

there and possibly — well, no, not even her! 

" But I have other grounds for liking chairmen. First of all, 
there are always a number of intolerable people who come in 
late. They are generally the local swells, too, and all the 
people turn round to point them out and to see what they have 
on, etc. This I find most disconcerting, so to avoid it I always 
encourage the chairman to make a speech which shall be just 
long enough to last while these troublesome people are coming 
in. As soon as the disturbance in the hall settles down I give 
signs of disquiet which speedily cause the chairman to shut up. 
I often find it convenient, too, in the course of my lecture, to 
address the chairman personally, and if he happens to have 
put a new steeple on the church, or repaired the village pump, 
or presented a park, or made more mustard or soap than anyone 
else, I take care to get posted on the subject beforehand, and 
then introduce the little matter in some felicitous manner which 
makes things pleasant all round. Yes, I like chairmen, and am 
glad to have one. 

" All right about the shooting stars. I like the subject, and 
will do my level best. I had upwards of 4,000 of an audience a 
few days ago." 

When his repertory was complete he was indifferent as to 
which lecture he should give to any particular audience. In 
November, 1892, it had been arranged for him to lecture at 
K , and he wrote from Cambridge : 

" Did we settle the subject ? I have no memorandum of what 
it is to be. 

" I can congeal you with the ' Ice Age ' or burst you up with 
the thunders of Krakatoa. I can tell you awful whoppers about 
' Time and Tide,' or petrify you with a burst of eloquence about 
P 225 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

' Invisible Stars.' I usually put the greatest rot into a lecture 
called 'Other Worlds'! There is a faint (very faint) soupqon 
of theology in ' An Evening with the Telescope.' " 

Of his qualities as a lecturer it is unnecessary to speak. 
Suffice it that he achieved success — a success which was prob- 
ably greater than any other popular exponent of astronomy. 
He was occasionally made the subject of curious comment. In 
alluding to his first Lowell Lecture, which was delivered at 
Boston, Mass., in 1884, the local paper said : 

" He has not quite the oratorical ability of Professor Langley, 
and suffers from a slight impediment in his speech ; but he has 
a smooth, clear voice, with a use of it, at times, quite 

He was sometimes accused by hypercritical persons who 
occupied seats in the front row, of having spoken too loud. 
But he justified himself by saying : " I always try to remember 
that there may be a deaf old gentleman at the back of the hall 
who is entitled to hear what I have to say." 

He often wound up a lecture with a quotation. There was 
one beginning: "But number every grain of sand" which 
was a special favourite. He would use it when attempting to 
give his audience some idea of the vast number of stars in 
the firmament, and it was the closing passage in the lecture 
which he called "An Evening with the Telescope." I dis- 
covered amongst his correspondence a letter from Mr. Ailing- 
ham (February 19th, 1883) which shows that he obtained these 
beautiful lines from the poet himself : 

" We have reason to be grateful when one who can speak with 
authority brings the results of science within the range of ordinary 
human intelligence and sympathy. I wish I could hear your dis- 
courses on astronomy, and hope to read them soon. May I ven- 
ture to enclose you a little poem, written some years ago ? It may 
be thought an extravagant way of suggesting to the imagination 
the number of suns — but is a kind of protest against the narrowing 
tendency of naming numbers when speaking of the innumerable. 

" I had the pleasure of being introduced to you off the Eddy- 
stone Lighthouse, and of walking with you round the Dean's 
Garden at York." 

He brought in a part of Mr. Allingham's verses which were 
called, "In a Cottage Garden," by thus concluding his lecture 
on "An Evening with the Telescope" : 


Lectures on Astronomy 

"As I return to my house after spending an evening at 
the telescope, the fact which chiefly dwells with me — the fact 
which oppresses me with its magnificence, and overwhelms me 
with its sublimity — is the greatness of that host of stars which 
no man can number. If we have been baffled in the attempt to 
count the stars whose photographs are recorded upon that 
picture now before you, if we have been staggered by the con- 
ception that the myriad suns there represented only form the 
ten-thousandth part of the total number of suns with which 
the glorious canopy of heaven is inlaid, what are we to say to 
the conception which I have now to bring before you ? Think 
of the most distant star on that picture. I am sure I know not 
which it is. It may be this one, or this, or that; I am not 
concerned with the hundreds of millions of millions of miles 
by which that star may be separated from us. The point I really 
want to urge is, that the distance of the most remote star is 
finite, whereas the surrounding space is infinite. Imagine a 
vast globe — a globe of such huge proportions that it shall 
include within its tremendous compass all the stars that are 
there shown, and indeed all the stars that can ever be repre- 
sented on the most sensitive photographic plate. We can tell 
the diameter of this globe. But yet its dimensions are finite ; 
around it is the infinite. This vast globe, which would include 
within it every object on which the eye of man has ever yet 
looked, is merely a dewdrop, while boundless space is an 
Atlantic Ocean. If within that dewdrop there are a hundred 
million glorious suns and systems, what shall we say of the suns 
and systems in the infinite space beyond, where not improbably 
every part may be well furnished with stars. Judged by all 
analogy, the stars that we know, amazingly numerous as they 
may seem, would have to be multiplied by millions and by 
millions ere any conception could be obtained of the number 
of suns in the universe. I do not trust to my own language 
to give expression to the bewilderment which attends our efforts 
when we try to realise the number of the stars. I shall invoke 
the aid of the poet to express the innumerable, and conclude 
by repeating a few lines by Allingham : 

"' But number every grain of sand. 
Wherever salt wave touches land. 
Number in single drops the sea, 
Number the leaves on every tree, 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

Number earth's livings creatures all, 

That run, that fly, that swim, that crawl; 

Of sands, drops, leaves, and lives, the count 

Add up into one vast amount. 

And then dor every separate one 

Of all those, let a flaming- sun 

Whirl in the boundless skies, with each 

Its massy planets, to outreach 

All sig-ht, all thought; for all we see 

Encompassed with infinity. 

Is but an island.' " 

Anecdotes of a simple and humorous character were often 
related in the popular lectures. 

For example, he used to begin the lecture on " Krakatoa " 
thus : 

"I understand that the announcement of this lecture has 
mystified many excellent people. A few days ago a friend 
stopped me in the street and said : ' What is this you are 
advertised to lecture about ? ' I replied, of course : ' About 
Krakatoa.' 'Oh, indeed,' said the gentleman; 'about 
Krakatoa. How very interesting! But who was he?' You 
see, the very word ' Krakatoa ' is so suggestive of doughty 
deeds and valorous enterprise that my friend evidently thought 
the hero of the lecture was some renowned Irish chieftain 
of the ninth century, whose prowess in battle I was about 
to sing. 

"The next time I was asked the same question I tried to 
anticipate the difficulty. I said at once that I was to lecture 
on the ' Eruption of Krakatoa.' This, however, did not an- 
swer, either. In these days we hear so much of germs, and of 
bacilli, of epidemics, and of influenza, that my acquaintance 
evidently supposed that the eruption of Krakatoa was some 
brand-new kind of sickness that had suddenly broken out to 
harass yet once more our frail tenements of clay. Accordingly 
he said : ' Oh, I didn't know you thought yourself an authority 
on medical matters.' And then he too moved on." 

Again, in the course of his lecture, "Recent Researches 
about the Sun," he said : 

"I had occasion to make use of the word 'carbon' in a 
recent lecture, and I thought when doing so that I was using 
a term with whose meaning all my acquaintances would be 
familiar. But I found out afterwards that I was mistaken.. 


Lectures on Astronomy 

I was told that my introduction of the word had puzzled some 
members of the audience. I learned that a few of those who 
were unfamiliar with this word went to a scientific gentleman 
of their acquaintance to get an explanation of this mysterious 
word 'carbon,' whereupon he told them that he was not quite 
sure himself, but that he believed it was made of nitro- 

He began another of his lectures in the following way : 
"May I begin by telling you a little personal experience 
that I had a short time ago, when I visited another town — no 
matter where — to give a lecture on ' Other Worlds Than Ours ' ? 
The secretary, to whom I was personally a stranger, had 
courteously written to say that he would come to meet me 
at the station on my arrival. He told me that when I reached 
my journey's end I was to be on the look out for someone 
on the platform who might look like a secretary. There were 
many passengers, and the station was full of people. Amongst 
them, however, I noticed one very active individual who was 
rushing about scrutinising everybody carefully, and I thought 
perhaps he might be the person I was to meet; but after he 
had looked me over from top to toe, and had turned disdain- 
fully away, I concluded that I must be mistaken. 

"Gradually, however, the passengers departed, until there 
was no one left in the station but this active individual and 
myself, and after another look he came up to me and said : 
' Well, it is very strange, but I am here by appointment to 
meet Sir Robert Ball, and he has not come.' ' But,' said I, 
'I am Sir Robert Ball.' 'What,' said he, 'you Sir Robert 
Ball ? Good gracious ! I expected to see a careworn creature 
in blue spectacles; but as to you — why, you look like a fellow 
that could enjoy himself ! ' " 

In yet another lecture he told his audience how : 
"Some years ago, when I was in America, I visited Pro- 
fessor Marsh, the distinguished geologist in Yale College. 
He was then engaged in putting up the skeleton of a wonderful 
fossil animal which he had discovered in the Rocky Mountains 
of Colorado. This creature was indeed of colossal proportions. 
For two years Professor Marsh and a large staff of men had 
been engaged in carefully exhuming the bones of this reptile, 
which was more than one hundred feet long, and must have 
been at least thirty feet high. In recognition of the fact that 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

it was the most splendid four-footed beast which has ever 
graced this earth, Marsh called it the Atlantosaurus. He 
showed me the thigh-bone of the mighty animal. The picture 
before us represents the cast which he was kind enough to present 
to the authorities of the Natural History Museum at South 
Kensington. I could not help saying to Professor Marsh that 
next to the Falls of Niagara the skeleton of the Atlantosaurus 
was the most interesting and valuable object in the United 
States. Raising his hat, he said : ' I thank you for that 
compliment to the Rocky Mountains.' " 

Lecturing at Newry on October 8th, 1894, on "An Evening 
with the Telescope," he had occasion to dwell upon the diffi- 
culties which would beset the man in the moon; "The day 
would be thirty times as long as our day, and the night thirty 
times as long as our night, while the temperature would be 
something like 200 degrees below zero during the night. But 
the inhabitants would have this consolation i that they would 
be well heated during the following day, when the temperature 
would be from 200 to 300 degrees above boiling point ! " 

VI. — Correspondence Relating to the Lectures 

During his career as a lecturer my father used to receive 
curious letters from all sorts of people. If his correspondent 
showed some glimmering of intelligence it was his practice to 
send a courteous reply; but letters from persons whom he 
called "flat-earth men " were consigned to the "Paradox Box" 
in his study. 

On November 26th, 1898, he wrote to Dr. Rambaut : 

"As you know, I do not care for controversy. I have never 
even attempted to convert a circle squarer! The flat-earth 
men may believe the earth to be concave if they like. Contro- 
versy is only possible with a mathematician and about a mathe- 
matical point. There is then some chance of a clear issue, and 
a certainty that each will at least understand and respect the 

The true "flat-earth men" did not spare him. Here is a 
characteristic letter from the celebrated John Hampden * : 

• He was plaintiff in a case well known to lawyers, Hampden v. Walsh (1876), 
I Q.B.D. 190, wherein he claimed to recover a sum of /500 which he had deposited 
with the defendant as stakeholder upon the result of a wager with Mr. A. R. Wallace. 
Chief Justice Cockburn thus referred to the plaintiff in his judgment : " The plaintiff, 


Lectures on Astronomy 

"In the approaching discussion at Southport, I understand 
you are to introduce the subject of the distance of the sun. 
Allow me most respectfully to say that I shall challenge you 
to show that any reliance is to be placed on observations made 
on the hypothesis that the earth is a globe and rotating on an 
axis before a fixed sun. No man, be his scientific attainments 
ever so high, has the right or ability to discuss this subject on 
faulty and mistaken premises. It may be very mortifying to 
have to go back to the very A B C of your system, but the time 
has passed when you can rely on meeting with no opposition to 
the baseless conjectures of the heathen astrologers. The distance 
of the sun depends wholly and entirely on your knowledge of the 
shape of the earth. Of that you are totally ignorant." 

The same authority wrote on another occasion : 

" Referring to a lecture given by you a few days ago in 
Dublin, allow me to say how astonished I am that any man can 
be found at the end of the nineteenth century to utter the scandal- 
ous falsehoods such as you then repeated with respect to the sun's 
distance from the earth. You must know such statements to be 
false, and you dare fool your ignorant dupes with these scandal- 
ous fictions, which only the devil himself could have invented. 
If the sun is ninety-three million miles distant, how would the 
temperature be I20° at the equator and 50° below zero at the 
north, a triangle having only 2,000 miles base, with the other 
two sides 93,000,000 ? Considering what we spend in education, 
I consider such monstrous lies perfectly scandalous. I will ex- 
pose you, never fear." 

it appears, entertains a strong disbelief in the received opinion as to the convexity 
of the earth, and with the view, it seems, of establishing his own opinion in the face 
of the world, he published in a journal called Sd$ntific Opinion an advertisement in 
the following words : 

" • The undersigned is willing to deposit /50 to ;f 500 on reciprocal terms, and 
defies all philosophers, divines and scientific professors in the United Kingdom 
to prove the rotundity and revolution of the world, from Scripture, from reason, 
or from fact. He will acknowledge that he has forfeited his deposit if his 
opponent can exhibit to the satisfaction of any intelligent referee a convex rail- 
way, canal, or lake.' " 

Mr. A. R. Wallace having taken up the challenge, experiments were carried out 
on the Bedford Level, with the result that Mr. Walsh (the defendant) who also acted 
as referee, decided in favour of Mr. Wallace, " as havmg proved to his satisfaction 
the curvature to and fro of the Bedford Level Canal between Witney Bridge and 
Welsh's Dam (six miles) to the extent of five feet, more or less." The plaintiflF 
apparently did not regard Mr. Walsh as an "intelligent referee," for he demanded 
the return of his deposit, notwithstanding which the defendant paid it over to Mr. 
Wallace. It was held, for legal reasons into which it is not necessary to enter, that 
the plaintiff was entitled to recover. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

To critics of this calibre my father appears to have applied 
the maxim : 

"The noblest answer unto such 
Is perfect stillness when they brawl." 

He sometimes referred publicly to the letters which he re- 
ceived. For instance, he began his lecture on "Invisible Stars" 
by saying : 

"I have received a letter. Here it is. I am not going to 
tell you the address; it does not now concern us. I am not 
going to tell you the name of the writer from whom it comes, 
because I don't know that myself. The communication is 
anonymous, but I will just read it to show you the style of 
thing I have to submit to : 

" ' It is announced that you will lecture this evening on what 
you call " Invisible Stars." If those stars are invisible, I beg to 
ask whether you have ever seen them ? [There is internal evidence 
that the writer of this letter is a countryman of mine.] Must not 
a lecture on "Invisible Stars " be about as entertaining as a con- 
cert of inaudible music ? Did you ever detect the perfume from 
an inodorous flower ? ^3-^^^^^ „ . ^^ UNBELIEVER.' " 

"Of course, there is a postscript: 
PS.— I shall be there.'" 

(( ( 

A communication which he often mentioned with delight 
is quoted in a letter dated November 13th, 1889 — Shooting Star 
Night — written at the end of a lecture tour : 

" I have had a fine time of it, and among my audiences I have 
had three real Bishops, a Prince of Siam, a ditto of Roumania, 
and a host of such people as ordinary lords, earls, and common 
deans and other Church dignitaries, not worth mentioning. All 
these people have been drawn out of their several boots by a new 
and blood-curdling kind of eloquence which I have adopted to 
the utter confusion of everybody. At Tunbridge School, W. 
was most anxious that I should read a letter from the grocer 
who desired to become an apprentice at Dunsink. 

" We had not the letter, of course, but we recomposed it with 
such judicious improvements as would lead to the culminating 
and awful sentence commencing, ' My mind finds no rest,' which 
is perfectly genuine. Here is the letter : 

"'Most Honourable Sir, 

" ' I am a grocer's assistant, but my spirit is above the sell- 
ing of tea and sugar, and longs for communion with the skies. 


Lectures on Astronomy 

Could you take me as an apprentice in your Observatory ? I 
pass many a sleepless night yearning for the sympathy of the 
planets. As I weigh out twopennyworth of figs in the balance 
I think of Libra the constellation, and long to soar aloft amid 
the celestials. The pair of children that have just come into the 
shop make me wish myself to be the Heavenly twins, and when 
they asked for bull's-eyes, I thought of the constellation of Taurus 
and the bull's-eye that twinkles above. In fact, dear sir, and 
most honoured individual, my mind finds no rest for the sole 
of her foot save on one of the heavenly bodies! ' 

" The result was prodigious and fully justified W.'s antici- 
pation of success." 

An anxious parent asked for advice as to how to make his 
son an astronomer : 

" I want to talk to you about my boy. . . . Will you guide 
if I steer, I mean, pay ? He has most wonderful eyes for * star- 
gazing.' Do think, and let God do the rest. He was born near 
the Karoo, Africa, and that is the place for sight and clearness. 

" Do give me your prop ! " 

In real or pretended ignorance of the true function of an 
astronomer many people used to make inquiries of Sir Robert 
as to the weather. He was often heard to put them off by 
saying that the domain of an astronomer only starts at a 
distance of 240,000 miles from the earth and ends at infiinity. 
But it is manifest that some people refused to be put off by 
any excuses. 

Thus he received the following letter from a lady who was 
a complete stranger to him : 

"I am contemplating a visit to Syria — and have thought that 
to go by way of the Bay of Biscay and through the Straits of 
Gibraltar would be the most enjoyable, provided one could 
ensure fine weather for the voyage. This is my first experience 
of such travel, and I do not, personally, know anyone who could 
advise me on the subject. I should feel very grateful if you 
would favour me with a reply to my queries re forecasts of 
weather and such like." 

Problems of a recondite character, suggested, apparently, 
by the relative motions of the heavenly bodies, were sometimes 
presented for solution. The following is from a letter dated 
January 31st, 1897 : 

" I shall be much obliged if you will kindly give me an authori- 
tative opinion on the problem of the person going round a pole 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

with a monkey on the top — the monkey twisting round on the top 
with face always opposite to the person going round. The ques- 
tion is whether the person goes round the monkey or not, and as 
there have been many disputes on the point, it has been agreed 
that your opinion is to be final and conclusive." 

From artists he received at least two letters. A painter 
in Clerkenwell wrote : 

" I have an emblematic oil-colour painting, painted by myself, 
of ' The Landing of Truth.' The emblem that I have employed 
is a fine-shaped woman in the nude landing from a rough sea, 
having reached the shore by the means of a buoy. By the land- 
ing of Truth, I mean, the recently discovered truth that it is 
from the sun that we mankind, and all living things, both vege- 
table and animal, derive our lives and beings. As I surmise, 
sir, you believe in this natural and exhilarating definition of the 
mystery of life, I thought you would like to avail yourself of a 
painting illustrating the subject ; if so, I shall be glad to let you 
have it at a reasonable price." 

A second artist appears to have asked her sister to write 
to the astronomer about : 

" * The Position of the Sun as affecting the 

PAINTING of a picture.' 

"Excuse the liberty I am taking in writing to you on the 
above subject, but it is on behalf of my sister, who is troubled as 
to when the sun will allow her to finish a picture she is painting 
of an interior in Oxford. ' She was engaged on an interior from 
March 15th to end of the month. The sun shone then through 
certain small windows, and she is anxious to know when she can 
get the same rays of light again, so that she may arrange to 
continue her work. She has been told by some people that about 
September 15th she can start again, by others, not until the 
same time next year. She would be greatly obliged if you 
would kindly advise her as to when she might expect to get the 
same effect for her picture." 

I only know of his being annoyed at one of his numerous 
correspondents. It was a clergyman who, when Mars was in 
opposition, wrote to say that certain of his congregation were 
disturbed in mind as to the prospect of a collision with that 
planet. He [the reverend writer] desired to have from the 
Astronomer Royal "a few words which he might read from 
the pulpit to reassure his flock." As might be expected, Sir 


Lectures on Astronomy 

Robert took no notice of this letter. It was consigned to the 
"Paradox Box." But he was somewhat incensed when a few- 
weeks later he received another letter in which the same cleric 
expressed the view that "public servants might at least ucquire 
courtesy ! " 

Sometimes, if occasion suited, a bantering reply was 
vouchsafed. On one occasion a dear old lady who had been 
reading "The Story of the Heavens" said she quite under- 
stood that the path of the earth, in its course round the 
sun, was elliptical, and that the sun was at one of the foci 
of the ellipse. Here, however, she was at a loss. She did not 
know which of the foci occupied this proud position. Sir 
Robert's reply raised a nice problem in orientation. He wrote 
on a post card : "The right-hand one." 

A gentleman wrote from a town at which my father was 
about to lecture asking him to state whether it was true that 
"Mars was inhabited by a very fine race of people, the men 
being 9 feet 3 inches in height, and the women so beautiful 
that words cannot describe them." 

This is what he said about possible inhabitants of the 
Ruddy Planet in the lecture entitled "The Eternal Stars" : 

" I can tell you nothing of these inhabitants. I do not 
know what they are like, or how big they are, or what clothes 
they wear, or what dwellings they inhabit, or whether they 
are scattered over the country or are collected together in cities. 
We really know nothing of them. They may be five feet high, 
or five inches high, or fifty feet high, for anything we can tell. 
The inhabitants on Mars may be more like birds or fishes 
than like men or women. In one of his famous imaginary 
sketches Voltaire said that when the inhabitant of Saturn was 
interrogated about life on his planet he was asked, among other 
questions, how many senses he had. The Saturnian immedi- 
ately replied that ' the inhabitants of Saturn had seventy 
senses, and that every day they lived they regretted they had 
so few.* I know nothing as to the inhabitants of Mars. Even 
in my most sanguine moments I never expect to know any- 
thing beyond just this — that Mr. Lowell's observations appear 
to show that work conducted by intelligent agents is at present 
in progress in Mars." 

A little later he said : 

"It certainly seems that the inhabitants on Mars, whoever 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

and whatever they may be, have at least this much in common 
with us dwellers on the earth — that water is essential to their 
existence. Sir Wilfrid Lawson, at all events, will be gratified 
to learn this fact ! " 

I may add to this what he said as to the possibility of 
there being life on Venus : 

"If there be life upon Venus, and I prefer to think that 
the Evening Star is the abode of life, we may be assured 
that the inhabitants, whatever they are like, will dwell on the 
sunny side, and night will be to them unknown. The other 
side, where not a ray of sunlight ever falls, will be a desolate 
wilderness, less known to the denizens of the favoured regions 
than our North Pole and South Pole are to the dwellers on 
this earth. For the inhabitants of Venus there would be no 
pleasant transition between hours of activity and hours of 
soothing repose. The arrangement might, however, be very 
suitable for the development of vegetation on Venus. It seems 
to have been proved that though plants slumber through the 
hours of darkness, they will grow continuously if continuous 
light be given. If electric light be supplied in mitigation of 
night, it has been shown that vegetation will progress far more 
luxuriantly than when such assistance to Nature is withheld. 
We must imagine the splendour with which the tropical forests 
on Venus might unfold their leaves to a sun, whose rich and 
warm beams were never for a single moment intermitted." 

The moon appeared to trouble some of his correspondents. 
A lady writing from Ireland said : 

" May I ask you kindly to excuse me trespassing upon your 
time, in asking for an answer to the following question, which 
has puzzled so many friends : 

" Have the moon's rays power to whiten stone ? There is a 
beautiful church near here built about ten years ago of a kind 
of basaltic stone, the belfry of which is a model of a round 
tower. A portion of it facing the moon has become whitened, 
also a side of the church facing the same direction. Abroad we 
see marble statues and pillars whitened at the side facing the 
moon and dark at the opposite side, and here in the north of 
Ireland the linen is said to bleach best in the moon's rays. 
Can this influence be true, or are we moon-struck in coming to 
this conclusion ? " 

A gentleman who seemed to be disturbed about the 
behaviour of the moon in the Arctic regions wrote : 


Lectures on Astronomy 

" I cannot realise to myself what the behaviour of the moon 
is in the Arctic regions, and I can hnd no reference to the subject 
in your books or those of other astronomers who have written 
text books for the instruction of the general public. 

"I know that the altitude of the moon is greater in winter 
than m summer, and I imagine that it must be half a lunar month 
above the horizon and half below. Travellers in the far North 
say a great deal about the sun but very little about the moon. 
Will you kindly write in the enclosed envelope the name of a 
book which will solve my difficulty, and pardon me foj- en- 
croaching on your valuable time ? " 

A lady, writing to my father, wanted to know "by return 
of post " whether it was true that the earth was coming 
to an end very soon owing to the rapid approach of 
Hercules. "If it is true," she said, "nothing except Church 
work seems to be worth doing; and I can get no relaxation of 
mind with this thought in the background." Whether the 
good lady (who hailed from somewhere north of the Tweed) 
restricted her energies to Church work does not appear. She 
seems to have received no answer. Another lady, writing in 
the same year, thought "that the earth had got out of its 
course and was making off to Jupiter." 

A clergyman in the south of England held the view that 
the New Jerusalem was situated at the back of the moon. 
Hearing that Sir Robert was about to lecture in the neighbour- 
hood, he determined to submit his theory to the judgment of 
an expert. He even went to the length of button-holing the 
astronomer upon his arrival at the station. "What do you 
think. Sir Robert? Is not the back of the moon, which we 
have never seen, likely to be the New Jerusalem?" "I should 
think," said the astronomer siily, "that you would be more 
likely to find it at the back of Mars ! " With this answer the 
divine was content. If the Lowndean Professor had not ac- 
cepted the proposition in its entirety, at least he had not ruled 
it out altogether. 

Let it not be supposed, however, that all the letters which 
he received relating to his lectures were consigned to the 
"Paradox Box." He was grateful to many a correspondent 
who suggested a correction or opened up some new line of 
thought. Of such letters, which he received in countless 
numbers, I print but two. The first relates to the meteoric 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

shower which was expected in 1899. Professor H. A. Giles 
wrote on November 7th, 1899 : 

" After hearing your interesting lecture last night, it occurred 
to me to see if I could find any record of meteoric showers in 
Chinese authors. I venture to send you the result of a desultory 
search. Entry No. 2 referring to the year 1035 seems to be some- 
where about the mark." 

My father replied on November loth : 

" Many thanks for your kind letter. The extracts you give 
are very interesting, and I am very glad to have them. As you 
say, the date A.D. 1035 corresponds very well with the Leonid 
shower, but the stones found I should expect to be apocryphal. 
At any rate, there is no authentic evidence whatever of meteors 
in the Leonid shower throwing down stones or particles that 
could afterwards be recovered or recognised. 

" Doubtless much attention will now be given to the subject, 
and I am sure that such records as you have found will be very 

"As to the shower in 685 B.C., the fact that the season was 
summer and some other circumstances seem to point to the con- 
clusion that this was not a display of the Leonids, but perhaps 
it may have been a display of the Perseids or August meteors." 

The second letter was received at Cambridge in January, 
1893, from the famous novelist, Ouida : 

" Dear Sir, 

" I think it may interest you to know that I several times in 
the past year saw with my unaided eyes two of the satellites of 
Jupiter. I wish you could see the stars and planets from my 
terraces and tell me all about them. Would you mind telling 
me by letter in which constellation the star Altair is to- be 
found ? 

" Accept my compliments and allow me to remain faithfully 

Vn. — A Lecture to Convicts 

I have pointed out that my father seldom lectured without 
fee. On one occasion, however, he giave his services for 
nothing in circumstances which are sufficiently remarkable. 

In the spring of 1907 he was making holiday in Devonshire, 
and on March 4th he received the following letter from the 
chaplain of Dartmoor Prison : 

"As you will be in this neighbourhood on the 13th or 14th 
inst., I am venturing on behalf of the largest body of convicts 


Lectures on Astronomy 

in the kingdom to make a request which I can only trust may 
meet with your sympathy. 

" With the permission of the Directors of Convict Prisons a 
few lectures are given each winter season to the whole body of the 
men here, brought in from labour for the purpose. These lec- 
tures are very popular with the poor fellows, and it has been 
found that they tend very considerably towards their mental and 
moral improvement. They are on various subjects (except 
religion), and you will readily understand that they give the men 
something to think about, and take them for the time out of 
themselves. Will you, sir, when so near us, spare us an hour 
for one of your charming discourses ? My excuse for the bold- 
ness of this request is simply the happiness and delight your 
undertaking so kind an act would give to hundreds at the penal 

My father accepted the invitation, and a day or two later 
the Governor (Mr. Basil Thomson) wrote to say that the lecture 
would be given at noon on March 14th. He added : 

" There will be an attendance of 900, among whom, besides 
the ordinary labourer, are many intelligent and well educated 
men — lawyers, a parson or two, forgers, long-firm swindlers, and 
professional burglars. It is therefore a mixed audience in more 
senses than one." 

Writing to advise me of the fact that he had consented to 
address the convicts, my father said : 

" Dearest Bill, 

"If you want free tickets for your friends to hear a lecture 
of mine, now is their chance! Let them hurry up and commit 
bigamy, or arson, or any really good felony short of actual 
murder and they will have a free ticket, indeed, a compulsory 
ticket forthwith! 

"I lecture to the convicts at Dartmoor on Friday. (Fact!) 

" P.S. — I shall have both clergymen and lawyers [the italics 
are his. — Ed.] in my audience, I am told." 

To Princetown he went on March 14th, and duly delivered 
his lecture. 

Writing to Mrs. Millington a few days later, he said : 

" My experience at the prison was very curious. I lectured 
to 950 convicts, including, as they were particular to tell me, 
the very worst scoundrels on earth. But a more pleasant and 
sympathetic audience there could not be. I would like to tell 
you all about it some time. When I remarked on the fact that 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

not over a dozen of the prison officials were present, to 950 con- 
victs, the answer was simple : ' The convicts never combine.' 

" The Governor told me that no lantern could be used, as it 
would be impossible to allow so many convicts to assemble in a 
darkened room, I was therefore compelled to illustrate my re- 
marks by drawing with chalk on a blackboard. WHien I mounted 
the platform I saw rows and rows of closely cropped heads in 
front of me. In the gangways on either side warders were 
mounted upon what looked like step ladders, from which they 
could get a clear view of the audience. The gallery at the back 
of the room was reserved for the more desperate characters. 
Having regard to what I had been told as to the social position 
of some of the convicts, I was at a loss to know whether to begin 
in the customary manner. Was I to address them as ' Gentle- 
men ' ? I solved the problem by commencing straight away 
without any introduction." 

If he found it difficult to begin a lecture in such surround- 
ings, he might well have found it doubly hard to go on ; but his 
courage and experience on the platform stood him in good 
stead. He told them of the appearance of a new star, and 
said : "A few years ago a new star appeared in the sky. It 
suddenly blazed forth with wonderful brilliance. On a fine 
night when it was at the zenith of its glory I set out to walk 
from King's College, Cambridge, to my home at the Obser- 
vatory. I was so much impressed with the brilliance of the 
new celestial body that I determined to point it out and 
explain its remarkable appearance to everyone I met. Amongst 
other people I encountered was a policeman. Having given the 
officer a short history of the star, I adjured him to mark it 
well, as he might never see such a thing again. The constable 
replied: 'All right, Sir Robert, I'll keep my eye on it ! ' " 

The audience shook the building with an outburst of 
applause, and the lecture was a huge success. 

That it produced some effect upon at least one member of 
the audience is apparent from a letter which reached Cambridge 
some time afterwards : 

The envelope was addressed : 

"Professor Bird (or Black), 

" Obsowatory, 


The letter was written in pencil, on a bill headed with the 


Lectures on Astronomy 

name of a man who described himself as a "builder and steeple 
contractor." The contents were as follows : 

"Dear Sir, 

" please to excuse my intrusion, but after listening to your 
lecture at Dartmoor Convict prison It made a deep impression 
upon me and meny hundred sorrowful hearts blessed you, and 
it was even the talk up till my release a few months ago. I 
wish to retreave my Character and circumstances, and something 
give me the instinct after seeing you stand and laugh while we 
clapped in gratifulness, especially when you mentioned the boby 
said he would keep his eye on that star, and the person falling 
off the ladder, etc. I send you the bill head as a proof of my 
possion and circumstances till this misfortune befel me, and if 
you can assist or send some acquaintance to see me and enclose 
this letter I will feel grateful. I am on 119 days ticket-of-leaf, 
and then you know how cricital my position is till that expires. 

I ever wish to remain your truly . Will av^^ait every 

post in hopefulness. Oh! if I only had you near me personally 
to converse with you, I could tell you more of your lecture." 

The lecture at Dartmoor was Sir Robert's first, last, and 
only appearance before a criminal audience. In November, 
191 1, he was invited to lecture at the Feltham Borstal Institution, 
but he was unable to accept. 

VIII. — More Advanced Lectures 
The popular lectures through which my father became so 
widely known to the British public were upon astronomy. 
The recondite "Theory of Screws," to which he devoted the 
best years of his intellectual life, was little known to those 
who delighted to hear him on the platform. The subject 
was too abstruse, if not too sacred for such treatment. 

I, who am no mathematician, once asked him to explain 
the Theory of Screws. His reply was notable. He said : "If 
I were to begin speaking now, and continued to expound the 
subject for about six months without interruption, you might 
have some faint glimmering of what it means I " 

But the great "Theory" w^as well known to mathematicians 
in all parts of the w'orld. I remember the delight with which 
he told me that a course of lectures was being given in a 
German university on "Die Ballsche Schrauben-Theorie." Yet 
on one occasion he did attempt to deal with the "Screws" in 
a comparatively simple way. When the British Association met 

Q 241 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

at Manchester in 1887 the Astronomer Royal of Ireland gave 
an address to the Mathematical Section of the Association. It 
bore the attractive title: "A Dynamical Parable." 

Before delivering this address he had submitted a copy to 
Professor George Francis FitzGerald, who wrote on July 7th, 

" I thin3k your address is ' quite splendid,' as they would say 
across the water. I am afraid I am a rather useless critic, for I 
have little or nothing to criticise. If you could have introduced 
more conversation at the beginning it would be livelier. Mr. 
Querulous might have stood up for Mr. Cartesian's methods! I 
think 'Parable' better than 'Allegory,' for 'Allegory' would 
connote that the story was about something quite different from 
what its second meaning was like, and ' Story ' is rather too 

" I think when you bring out a new edition, or a complete 
edition, of your ' Screws ' you should put this in as an ' Introduc- 

"Of course, a thing of the kind could be drawn out with 
conversations almost indefinitely, and I think you have on the 
whole struck a happy mean, though the latter part is more con- 
versational, and, as such, livelier than the beginning — but then 
people require more stimulating things for their palates at the 
end of dinner. If you could divide Mr. Anharmonic's long 
speeches between him and a Mr. One-to-One it would relieve 
them, but then it would take more time. You might introduce 
into Mr. Q.uerulous, Purser's great objection to Quaternions, that 
what we want is analysis and not a complex quantity like a 
screw to deal with. We want the geometry analysed into its 
simplest components and not left in a complex state. Purser 
always objects to Quaternions because there is so much involved 
in q that you might as well deal with the original things. You 
want quantities to deal with whose laws are simple. This in a 
general way would apply to screws, and might be introduced in 
favour of Mr. Cartesian's methods. 

"However, I must stop this wild attempt to gild refined 

I venture to quote the opening and closing passages of the 
famous "Parable." Needless to say I make no attempt to 
explain them : 

"Ladies and Gentlemen, — The subject I have chosen for 
my address to you to-day has been to me a favourite topic of 
meditation for many years. It is that part of the science of 


Lectures on Astronomy 

theoretical mechanics which is usually known as the ' Theory 
of Screws.' 

" A good deal has been already written on this theory, but 
I may say with some confidence that the aspect in which I 
shall invite you now to look at it is a novel one. I propose 
to give an account of the proceedings of a committee appointed 
to investigate and experiment upon certain dynamical pheno- 
mena. It may appear to you that the experiments I shall 
describe have not as yet been made, that even the committee 
itself has not as yet been called together. I have accordingly 
ventured to call this address ' A Dynamical Parable.' 

"There was once a rigid body which lay peacefully at rest. 
A committee of natural philosophers was appointed to make 
an experimental and rational inquiry into the dynamics of that 
body. The committee received special instructions. They were 
to find out why the body remained at rest, notwithstanding 
that certain forces were in action. They were to apply im- 
pulsive forces and observe how the body would begin to move. 
They were also to investigate the small oscillations. These 

being settled, they were then to But here the chairman 

interposed; he considered that for the present, at least, there 
was sufficient work in prospect. He pointed out how the 
questions already proposed just completed a natural group. 
' Let it suffice for us, ' he said, ' to experiment upon the 
dynamics of this body so long as it remains in or near to the 
position it now occupies. We may leave to some more ambi- 
tious committee the task of following the body in all conceivable 
gyrations through the universe.' 

"The committee was judiciously chosen. Mr. Anharmonic 
undertook the geometry. He was found to be of the utmost 
value in the more delicate parts of the work, though his col- 
leagues thought him rather prosy at times. He was much 
aided by his two friends, Mr. One-to-One, who had charge 
of the homographic department, and Mr. Helix, whose labours 
will be seen to be of much importance. As a most respect- 
able, if rather old-fashioned, member, Mr. Cartesian was added 
to the committee, but his antiquated tactics were quite out- 
manoeuvred by those of Helix and One-to-One. I need only 
mention two more names. Mr. Commonsense was, of course, 
present as an ex-officio member, and valuable service was even 
rendered by Mr. Querulous, who objected at first to serve on 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

the committee at all. He said that the inquiry was all nonsense, 
because everybody knew as much as they wished to know about 
the dynamics of a rigid body. The subject was as old as the 
hills, and had all been settled long ago. He was persuaded, 
however, to look in occasionally. It will appear that a re- 
markable result of the labours of the committee was the con- 
version of Mr. Querulous himself. 

"The committee assembled in the presence of the rigid body 
to commence their memorable labours. There was the body at 
rest, a huge amorphous mass, with no regularity in its shape — 
no uniformity in its texture. But what chiefly alarmed the 
committee was the bewildering nature of the constraints by 
which the movements of the body were hampered. They had 
been accustomed to nice mechanical problems, in which a 
smooth body lay on a smooth table, or a wheel rotated on an 
axle, or a body rotated around a point. In all these cases the 
constraints were of a simple character, and the possible move- 
ments of the body were obvious. But the constraints in the 
present case were of puzzling complexity. There were cords 
and links, moving axes, surfaces with which the body lay in 
contact, and many other geometrical constraints. Experience 
of ordinary problems in mechanics would be of little avail. In 
fact, the chairman truly appreciated the situation when he said 
that the constraints were of a perfectly general type." 
The discussion lasted for a considerable time, until : 
"The chairman said he feared it was beginning to enter 
rather wide ground. For his part he was content with the 
results of the experiments, even though they had been con- 
ducted in the vapid old space of Euclid. He reminded them 
that their labours were now completed, for they had ascertained 
everything relating to the rigid body which had been committed 
to them. He hoped they would agree with him that the inquiry 
had been an instructive one. They had been engaged in the 
study of Nature, they had approached the problems in the true 
philosophical spirit, and the rewards they had obtained proved 

^ ' Nature never did betray 

The heart that loved her.' " 

The address was subsequently published in pamphlet form. 
In thanking him for a copy. Professor Niven (Aberdeen) wrote 
(September 5th, 1887) : 


Lectures on Astronomy 

" I have to thank you for the copy of your address as Presi- 
dent of Section A which you have sent me, and which I have 
already seen in the Mail. I have read it with a great deal of 
interest, though, I fear I should have to class myself as a cross 
between Mr. Cartesian and Mr. Querulous. Not since the time 
of Galileo has an attempt been made to combine wit and wisdom 
in this manner, and not everyone would venture on the experiment 
with much hope of success." 

My father gave several courses of lectures to advanced 
students at Cambridge. He thoroughly enjoyed this part of 
his work. Writing to Dr. Rambaut (October 17th, 1897), he 
said : 

" I am just beginning my lectures here on the Planetary 
Theory. You like the observatory work the best, but whatever I 
may have once thought, I now greatly prefer the lecturing, especi- 
ally when I have so magnificent a subject." 

He also lectured on "Screws," but apt pupils were few in 
number. He wrote to Professor Joly (July 12th, 1900) : 

"I have announced a few lectures on Screws this Long Vaca- 
tion, and I have heard of one man who was coming, and there 
may perhaps be others ; three would be considered a good class 
here in anything of this sort. Any man who does come to a class 
of the kind always does so very seriously, attends every lecture, 
takes careful notes, reads up the subject and never drops off, but 
they reflect maturely before beginning it. The man who is 
coming to me knows a good deal about the subject already, so 
I think of commencing with the Dynamical Theory of Impulsive 
and Instantaneous Screws." 




TN the year 1882 my father was appointed Scientific Adviser 
-■- to the Irish Lights Board, in succession to the late Pro- 
fessor Tyndall, who had held the post for a number of years. 

It was his duty to advise the Commissioners of Irish Lights 
as to the efficiency of the apparatus used in the Irish light- 
houses, and to investigate the claims of inventors who from 
time to time came forward with new-fangled lenses and 

Were the Commissioners undecided as to whether a par- 
ticular form of lantern should be adopted, he was consulted. 
Was it suggested that the electric arc would better serve to 
penetrate the mists which shroud the Irish coast from the eyes 
of the passing mariner, his opinion was sought. 

In 1884 he made a report to the Commissioners on the 
results obtained in a series of experiments on lighthouse illu- 
minants. The relative merits of gas, electricity, and oil had 
been put to a practical test at the South Foreland. In the 
report he states his conclusion on this important question : 

"I am convinced of the truth that for practical purposes a 108 
jet gas burner is substantially the same as the seven-wick oil 
lamp, the gas having perhaps a slight advantage in fixed lenses 
and the oil in revolving lenses. . . . The question as to the 
relative powers of gas and electricity in illuminating during fog 
seems to be still in a condition of uncertainty. It seems to have 
been shown that in moderately thick or misty weather the electric 
is much the best light, as it is, of course, in fine weather. It 
seems, however, from the important observations on November 
24th that in a fog which extinguished all lights at three and 
a half miles, the oil and gas were found at a distance of two and 
a half miles to be each superior to the electricity. On the other 
hand, on September gth, when full fog powers were used, all 
were extinguished at 1,600 feet, and on walking in, electricity 
appeared at 1,500 feet, and gas and oil together at 1,400 feet. 




Scientific Adviser to Irish Lights Board 

On December 6th the engineer at the South Foreland reports that 
a dense fog prevailed, and that all three lights are equal cind 
only just visible at one and a quarter miles. 

" So far as these experiments go they seem to prove that the 
preponderating splendour of the electric light is greatly reduced 
in a dense fog, but they do not afFord me the materials for any 
definite conclusion as to the relative value of electricity to the 
other illuminants in that weather when powerful lights are most 

He did not hesitate to set his opinion against that of the 
Board of Trade. He wrote to the secretary to the Commis- 
sioners (July nth, 1891) : 

" At the request of the Inspecting Committee I have had under 
consideration a letter of the Board of Trade, dated April 30th, 
1891, with reference to the Kinsale Light. I understand from 
this letter that the Board of Trade suggest that an eight-wick 
occulting biform light would suffice for the requirements of 
Kinsale. If I have understood this proposal aright, it is one 
in which I cannot acquiesce, as it does not seem to present any 
considerable advantages over the scheme for a ten-ringed burner in 
the present optical apparatus. 

"In support of this opinion I submit the following considera- 
tions. We know that in an ordinary fixed light the central drum 
transmits seven-tenths of the light, the upper prisms two-tenths, 
and the lower prisms one-tenth. Where two optical systems are 
combined, as in the biform, there is, of course, a sacrifice of both 
upper and lower prisms, and consequently if ten be the power of 
the single apparatus, the pow^r of the biform may be represented 
as fourteen. But this is on the supposition that the two lamps 
in the biform are each of the same power as the single lamp in the 
single apparatus. It must, however, be remembered that in the 
single apparatus we propose to use a ten-ring burner, and, so 
far as the data are available, it appears that the ten-ring burner 
will yield at least forty per cent, more light than the eight-ring 
burner. From this I conclude that the single apparatus with the 
ten-ring burner will be practically as good as the biform with 
two eight-ring burners. 

" My views as to the desirability of the electric light at Kin- 
sale have undergone no change, the only object of this letter 
being to record my opinion that if the electric light cannot be 
had, there will be no advantage in incurring the large expenditure 
for a biform occulting light with eight-ring burners when the 
much simpler change of putting a ten-ring burner into the pre- 
sent apparatus will, it seems to me, afford as good a light." 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

He always regarded the office of Scientific Adviser (to which 
he was reappointed annually) as somewhat precarious, but his 
fears were diminished when Lord Rayleigh was appointed to 
act in a similar capacity as adviser to the Trinity House. 
Although at least one Chancellor of the Exchequer, with a bent 
for economy, was inclined to abolish the post, my father 
continued to hold it to the end. 

He was not obliged to accompany the Commissioners on 
their tours of inspection, but he rarely missed this annual 
outing. At all events, he would join the ship for part of the 
cruise, and as he was a perfect sailor, the storm-tossed waters 
of the Atlantic had no terrors for him. 

He always looked forward to the voyage with the greatest 
delight; not, indeed, that it gave him an entire rest from his 
mathematical labours, for he always took his books with him, 
but because it meant the society of congenial friends. His 
camera and his "Bentham's British Flora" (of which more 
hereafter) always accompanied him on these occasions. 

I found amongst his papers a brief account of the com- 
mencement of a cruise in the Princess Alexandra. It would 
seem that he had it in mind to write a connected story of one 
of these cruises, but it was never completed. The following 
is but a fragment : 

"Early in June, 1890, I received an invitation from the 
Commissioners to join the Inspecting Committee on their 
annual cruise around the coast. It was not the first occasion 
on which I made this trip ; indeed, for several years past I 
have enjoyed a part of the cruise. I shall, however, specially 
speak of the midsummer of 1890. On a beautiful evening I 
journeyed to Kingstown, and there, at her moorings in the 
centre of the harbour, lay the Princess Alexandra, the steam 
yacht belonging to the Commissioners. A couple of hands 
met me at the station to carry down my traps, and I gladly 
reciprocated the hearty welcome from my old friends the 
members of the gig's crew. The steam pinnace awaited us 
at the Victoria Quay. We glided rapidly amidst the yachts 
across the blue waters of the harbour. On our way we saw 
a somewhat unusual visitor who had enlivened the harbour, 
I was told, for some days. It was a large and plump porpoise, 
which, instead of lazily tumbling about after the wonted manner 
of his species, jumped clean into the air as if he were look- 


Scientific Adviser to Irish Lights Board 

ing to find some way out of the harbour into which he had 
accidentally wandered ! At the top of the accommodation 
ladder we were welcomed by the trusty captain of the Princess, 
my valued friend A. Knox Galwey, Esq. More than fifty 
times has this excellent seaman circumnavigated Ireland in the 
service of the Commissioners. The greater number of these 
voyages were for the purpose of delivering stores to the light- 
houses and lightships. The Princess generally makes two or 
three such trips annually. In the summer, however, she does 
not carry stores. It is true that a box or two is generally to 
be found in the hold for delivery at each station where we 
touch, but the main object of the cruise is inspection. 

"The departure of the vessel is generally made the occa- 
sion of a little festive gathering, so that not only those members 
of the Board who are actually going on the voyage are present 
with us this evening, but several others who have come on 
board to dine, and to bid their colleagues hon voyage. 

"As the Princess is to be our home for two or three 
weeks, let us take a look at her. Her two yellow funnels are 
well known in every Irish harbour. Our favourite resort when 
under way is the bridge between the paddle-boxes. Many a 
pleasant hour is spent on this bridge. On the after-deck there 
is a deck-house, beautifully fitted, gay with geraniums and 
pelargoniums. It has a table well covered with books and 
newspapers. It also has a comfortable lounge — ^and be it 
known to land-lubbers that a nap may always be taken at sea 
at any hour of the twenty-four. A straight staircase from 
the deck-house leads into the saloon, which lies amidships. 
It contains a suitable library of books. At one side of the 
saloon hangs the roll map of the coast, which shows all light- 
ships and lighthouses. On the solid mahogany in the centre 
is to be found a vase of flowers, replenished from time to time 
during the cruise by gifts from the shore. It is in this saloon, 
of course, that our meals are served. At other times the 
deck-house, with its more abundant light and air, is gener- 
ally preferred, especially when we lie at anchor on a beautiful 
summer evening in some charming harbour or land-locked 
bay. In the after part of the vessel are seven cabins, three 
at each side and one at the end. Each is a distinct room. 
Seven is the number for which the ship is adapted. The 
captain has admirable quarters in another part of the vessel. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

"As I have said, a few friends come down to bid us fare- 
well. After dinner is over, and they have left, an important 
matter has to be decided. I should mention that one member 
of the Inspecting Committee is chosen by his brother Com- 
missioners to act as chairman during the cruise. The rest 
of the party are for the time under his mild sway. As to the 
navigation of the ship, that is entirely in the hands of the 
captain. He, however, receives instructions from the chair- 
man as to what it is proposed to do — as to when we shall start 
and when we shall stop, as to the harbours at which we shall 
lie, and all similar matters. The first exercise of the chairman's 
authority takes place after the little dinner-party is over. We 
are still in harbour, and the start is not to be made until early 
the following morning. We are to leave Kingstown and to 
sail round Ireland. This much is settled; but it is for the 
chairman to say, late at night, whether, on leaving Kingstown, 
we shall turn to the right or to the left — that is, whether we 
shall go south about or north about. This is not divulged 
until the last moment. The chairman has several reasons 
for keeping it secret. Let it be remembered that the object of 
the cruise is to inspect lighthouses, and that, for obvious 
reasons, there is no occasion to give the lightkeepers more 
notice of otir movements than is necessary. This is one reason 
why the chairman does not tell beforehand which way the ship 
is going; but there is a better reason still. Very often he does 
not know himself until the last minute. He looks at the 
barometer, he speculates on the weather, he has a chat with 
his colleagues, he asks the captain's opinion, he considers 
whether there is any special reason for visiting Queenstown 
before Belfast, or Belfast before Queenstown, and finally he 
then gives the word. I think, perhaps, we go more frequently 
northwise than southwise. Some of us may have had an idea 
that it would be north about. At about half-past eleven, how- 
ever, the oracle spoke. The sailing orders were given ' south 

"The duty on which the Princess Alexandra is bound is 
the annual inspection of the various establishments all round 
the coast of Ireland which are in the hands of the Irish Lights 
Commissioners, who must provide and maintain whatever 
lights, buoys, and beacons may be necessary for safe naviga- 
tion in these waters. Their rights and duties as regards sea 


Scientific Adviser to Irish Lights Board 

marks are analogous to those of the Trinity House for England. 
Both bodies are under the financial control of the Board of Trade, 
by whom the General Lighthouse Fund is administered. The 
shipping of the country has to pay certain tolls for lights, and 
it is from this source that the lights are maintained. It is not, 
however, to be inferred that all lights, buoys, ^nd marks have to 
be provided from this fund. At the various ports the local 
authorities have to maintain whatever is necessary for the guid- 
ance of vessels in and out of harbour. There are, however, a 
few exceptions. Certain harbours are regarded as ports of refuge 
to which vessels resort to escape from storms, or to await 
a fair wind. In such cases there is no reason why the local 
authorities should defray charges which should fall more ap- 
propriately on the general mercantile marine fund. To give 
an illustration of my meaning, I may refer to the case of 
Dublin. Ships arrive there to discharge cargo, and there is a 
cross-channel trade. The expenses of the lights are therefore 
defrayed by the Port and Docks Board from dues levied on 
the vessels frequenting the LifTey. At Kingstown there is a 
large artificial harbour from which the mail steam service to 
Holyhead is conducted; otherwise there is but little traffic, the 
harbour usually containing nothing but a fleet of yachts or 
weather-bound vessels. Yet, as it offers a refuge to ships, 
it is appropriate that the mercantile marine fund should pro- 
vide the lights, and accordingly the Kingstown lights are under 
the Commissioners, while those at Poolbeg, at the entrance 
to the LifTey, belong to the local authorities in Dublin. I 
might give similar illustrations at other places. For instance, 
it is only right that the mercantile marine fund should pro- 
vide lights and beacons at the mouth of Queenstown Harbour — 
a haven which provides an excellent anchorage and affords 
protection from all winds and waves. But the case is different 
if the ship entering Queenstown does so merely to convey a 
cargo of wheat to a merchant in Cork. Then she has to pass 
up the river from Queenstown, and the lights on this river are 
maintained by the local authorities, and not at the expense of 
the general mercantile marine. 

"To a certain limited extent even local lights and marks 
come under the notice of our Board. Every few years, in the 
course of their annual trip, the Commissioners make what is 
known as a ' local inspection.' On arrival at a port they are 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

met by the Harbour Commissioners, or some representative. 
They then make a survey of the lights, buoys, perches, or 
other marks designed to facilitate the navigation. But such 
investigations are comparatively small affairs. The main object 
on the cruise is to visit the numerous establishments which 
are entirely under the control of our own board. 

"Let me enumerate the different types of stations that we 
have to visit. They are all designed with the sole object 
of promoting the safety of navigation in the vicinity of our 
coasts. First of all we have the lighthouses, large and small, 
built on lonely islands or headlands, or rising, it may be, 
sheer out of the water. Of these there are many different types, 
adapted for various purposes. Then we have the lightships, 
which may be described as floating lighthouses. They mark 
dangerous rocks or shallow banks. Fog-signal arrangements 
are also to be found in all critical places round the coast. 
These vary in type from the old-fashioned cannon to the 
modern siren. It is the duty of the Committee to see that all 
these arrangements are kept up to the mark. They also visit 
the keepers' dwellings, investigate the boat arrangements 
for supplying the island stations with necessaries, and all other 
matters incidental to the service. Altogether the trip involves 
a visit to about a hundred establishments dotted round the 
coast. As the voyage seldom lasts for more than three weeks, 
the Inspecting Committee are at their labours early and late." 

Thus ends my father's own account in so far as it was 
written in connected form. 

He sometimes referred to his experiences with the Irish 
Lights Commissioners when on the platform. Here is a 
passage from his lecture, " How Came the Great Ice Age " : 

"It is a pleasant part of my duty to join the annual cruise 
of the Commissioners of Lighthouses round the coast of 
Ireland. Among the more remote places which we have an 
opportunity of visiting are the Isles of Arran, off Galway Bay. 
This desolate place is dear to the botanist, who remembers 
that it is the home in which the delicate maidenhair fern grows 
wild. To anyone who only knows this exquisite fern as we 
nurture it in our greenhouses, it will be a surprise to learn 
that its natural home is on a wilderness of barren rock. Yet 
so it is. This rock is limestone. It is deeply fissured, and 


Scientific Adviser to Irish Lights Board 

down in these fissures, under the influences of a genial cHme, 
luxuriant vegetation springs up. There the maidenhair is to 
be found, and there I have often gathered it by stretching a 
long arm into the crevices. 

"For our present purpose the special feature is not the 
limestone which forms the island, nor yet the maidenhair. It 
is this big stone to which I call attention. It is a piece of 
granite. There is no original granite naturally on the Isles of 
Arran. The nearest place where this kind of rock is met with 
is on the mainland, several miles away, between which and 
the Isles of Arran the deep Atlantic Ocean rolls its blue waves- 
It is perfectly certain that this block of granite — which is only 
one of many similar blocks strewn about the island — you can 
see another at the corner — has been broken away from its 
original home, has been transported across the sea, and has been 
deposited where we now find it. 

"In ancient days there were great glaciers on the west 
coast of Ireland. They not only filled the mountain valleys, 
but they descended into the sea. They actually advanced into 
the Atlantic Ocean, and the ice was continuous from the Isles 
of Arran to the mountains where the granite is to be found. 
Thus were the great boulders conveyed to the sites where we 
now find them. They speak eloquently of the tremendous 
change which the climate has undergone in this part of the 

When describing the effects of various kinds of "waves" 
in the lecture on "Invisible Stars" he had occasion to com- 
pare waves of light to the waves of the ocean : 

"The wave is indeed a terrible engine of destruction. I 
have seen in the West of Ireland those mighty Cliffs of 
Moher, with which the Old World presents a stern but 
majestic front to the Atlantic. Those superb precipices, over 
which the eagle still soars, have been hewn out by the incessant 
blows of stately waves hurled from the broad ocean. In a 
lifetime — nay, even in the course of centuries — ^but little 
apparent progress is made in this colossal sculpture ; but the 
invasion of the waves, if slow, is unremitting, and stupendous 
effects are produced when sufficient time is granted. In the 
lapse of geological periods of millions of years, the doom even 
of continents has been tolled by the everlasting thunder of the 
surf on the cliffs. By pondering on the awful efficacy of the 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

watery waves in battering down mountains, we shall perhaps 
be the more willing to credit the adequacy of the ethereal waves, 
even of invisible light, for the comparatively small task of 
inscribing their records on the photographic picture. It is, 
indeed, certain that when the astronomer exposes a plate for 
an hour or two to the heavens, the number of luminous waves 
of star light which break upon it are a hundred times more 
numerous than all the billows which the Atlantic has rolled in 
upon its shores, from the dawn of geological time down to the 
present hour." 

In 1904 the Princess Alexandra, which had been in com- 
mission for a long time, was replaced by a more modern vessel 
called the Alexandra. 

I remember asking the Scientific Adviser why the Princess 
was abandoned. He replied : 

"A man was working in the hold one day, when he let 
his hammer drop, and it fell through the bottom of the ship ! " 
And he added : "She was as leaky as a sprat net ! " 

Stories of courage and devotion to duty were sometimes 
told to the Commissioners on their tours of inspection, or 
recorded in their archives. My father preserved the following 
letter (dated July 27th, 1891) from the keeper on the Tuskar 
Rock, one of the most important lighthouses on the east coast. 
An assistant keeper had been seriously injured in an explosion : 

"In reply to your letter of the 23rd inst. I beg to say that 
when I sent in my report of the accident, I had been twenty-four 
consecutive hours on duty, and was completely exhausted and 
unable to write a full account. I now, sir, send you an exact 
copy of the log kept at the station. There was a dense fog at the 
time of the accident, and it was J. M. Learys watch, as he 
relieved me at 2 P.M., and the accident occurred at 2.30 P.M. at 
the gate at the N.E. corner of paint store. I asked him how it 
occurred, and he answered me twice, ' Putting in the detonators.' 
For further particulars see copy of log which was written at 
the time." 

"Copy of Log of July 20th, 1891. 

"At 2.30 P.M. during a dense fog J. M. Leary (Assistant 
Keeper) got most severely injured. He lost his right hand above 
the wrist, besides some severe cuts on the back of his head and 
neck, through the accidental bursting of a rocket while inserting 
the detonator into it. There was also injured at the same time 
(cut over left eye) J. Fortune, a boy of seven or eight years of 


Scientific Adviser to Irish Lights Board 

age, son of P. Fortune, lamp-trimmer. With the assistance ot 
the carpenter and labourer working on the rock I bound up the 
wounds, and having stopped the flow of blood we got them 
carried to bed, P. Fortune at the same time keeping the fog- 
signal going, besides firing two shots every fifteen minutes in 
quick succession, for assistance. We hoisted our ensign (Union 
down), with the signal P.D. underneath, in hopes that it might 
be seen by some passing ship. At 4.30 P.M. a small Austrian 
steamer came off the west landing, but though we went down 
and pointed out the best place to land, I am of the opinion he 
considered the sea too heavy. Having hoisted his ensign at the 
foremast head, which I took to indicate that he had made out our 
signal, he disappeared in the fog, steering in a westerly direc- 
tion. At 6.35 P.M., the fog having cleared a little, we saw the 
same steamer bearing down on the rock. WTien the steamer got 
off the N.E. landing, the captain signalled that he had for- 
warded our message. I signalled back ' Thanks.' The injured 
man getting weaker, I signalled to the steamer to send us 
a boat, but he steered N.E., taking no notice of our last 
signal. At 6.45 P.M. I observed a large steamer coming from 
the westward. As the evening looked bad, and there was no 
sign of assistance coming from land, I hoisted P.D. 'want 
immediate medical assistance.' The steamer, which proved to be 
the Cunard s.s. Cefhalonia, stopped off the rock and lowered 
her lifeboat, in which the captain sent his doctor to our assist- 
ance. Having dressed the wounds, the doctor told me it wx3uld 
be best to take the injured man aboard, he being so weak 
it would be dangerous to leave him all night on the rock. I 
told Leary what the doctor suggested, and he said he was most 
anxious to go. We got him safely on board the ship's boat at 
9.45 P.M., though there was a nasty sea running. I consider that 
great praise is due to the captain of the ship, also his doctor, 
chief of&cer, and crew for their gallant and humane conduct. 
As an instance of the sea that was running at the time, I omitted 
to mention that when within a few fathoms of the rock, the tiller 
struck the chief officer and knocked him overboard at the same 
time. It being dark at the time there was some trouble in pick- 
ing him up again. 

" In conclusion, I consider it my duty to mention that P. 
Fortune, lamp-trimmer, Phillip Duggan, a carpenter, and 
Thomas Ronan, labourer, gave all the assistance in their power, 
from the time of the accident until we got the injured man into 
the boat. (Signed) " JOHN HAMILTON, 

" Lightkeeper." 

Whenever any unusual phenomena were observed on 
lonely rock or island, a report was forwarded to the Scientific 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

Adviser. On August 12th, 1887, he received the following, 
which had been addressed to the secretary to the Commis- 
sioners by the keeper on Green Island : 

"I beg most respectfully to forward a report (as directed) of 
a strange and remarkable occurrence which took place here on the 
nights of March ist and 2nd of this year, which I unintention- 
ally omitted to bring under the notice of the Inspecting 

"On the night of the ist a peculiar form of fire or globular 
lightning was playing on the piles and handrail with a hissing 

" It first made its appearance about twelve feet down the 
handrail in a snow shower, with the wind varying from N.E. to 
E., and as it suddenly burst out on the handrail abreast of the 
door, I went in and did not watch it any longer. 

" On the night of the 2nd it also came on with a snowstorm 
with the wind E.S.E., but this time it appeared to strike the 
top of the flue from the stove, part of it remaining there, but 
the greater portion of it flew to the perforated ball on the 

" It also burned very bright on the extreme points of the 
sections of the dome, with the same peculiar noise as before ; 
even after daylight I could distinctly hear it, but could not 
see it. 

"I respectfully beg to say that I made an entry of this in the 
lighthouse journal at the time, but did not think it necessary to 
report it as it did not do any damage." 

My father invariably returned from a cruise well supplied 
with anecdotes. On one occasion he had been inspecting the 
Fastnet, one of the first lighthouses seen by the homeward-bound 
Atlantic liner. A new tower had just been completed, at the ex- 
penditure of much time and money, the work having been fre- 
quently interrupted by the raging of the elements, and he told us 
that whenever the workmen closed down for the day it was their 
practice to make everything trim. Nothing could be left loose 
on the rock, lest it should be washed away by the sea. When 
the lighthouse tower was nearing completion, a heavy box of 
tools was left on the platform under the lantern. Thinking 
it was out of reach of danger — the top of the tower is 150 feet 
above high-water mark — the workmen left the box unlashed. 
The sea rose in the night; and when day broke the box was 
gone ! 

In lighter vein he would speak of Tory Island — a place so 


Scientific Adviser to Irish Lights Board 

damp that, in the words of a local pundit, "all the snipes was 
dying of the rheumatics, and no human being could live in the 
place barring he was a seagull or a dispensary doctor ! " He 
also brought back the following anecdote concerning an island 
on the west coast on which at one time there was no resident 
physician. A woman having been taken suddenly ill, a boat was 
dispatched to the mainland. The nearest doctor was summoned, 
but he refused to stir until his fee of ;£i is. was paid in advance. 
The money was found, and paid, to the accompaniment of many 
grumbles. Having seen and prescribed for his patient, the 
doctor essayed to return. He found the beach deserted. 
Finally, he asked the fishermen to row him back. The reply 
was : "Not a man on the island will take you back for less than 
a guinea ! " 

He also told of a man who, being about to set up house 
on one of the islands of the west, employed the local boatman 
to convey his furniture and effects from the mainland. When 
the boat, heavily laden, was approaching the jetty the following 
colloquy took place : 

" Have you got it all there, Pat ? " 

"We have, yer honour." 

"But where's the grand piano?" 

"Shure, we're towing it behind! " 

A safe(?) cure for a leaky boiler is prescribed in the 
following anecdote which he retailed after a cruise. In the 
neighbourhood of a lighthouse on the west coast the builder's 
men were at work. A steam crane was in operation. On looking 
at the boiler he noticed that a hole near its base was plugged 
with a piece of wood. Upon my father asking the crane 
driver whether it was not dangerous to use the boiler under 
such conditions, he replied : "Ah ! It's all right. Sir Robert; 
the hole's well under wather. The steam's all at the top of 
the boiler ! " 

Other experiences with the Commissioners are recorded in 
the following letters : 

To his wife (June 15th, 1900) : 

" In the hopes of being able to post this in Galway I write 
a few lines this morning. I am, as usual, the most sleepy head 
in the ship— -the first to go to bed and the last to get up. But 
they are astir early here. Taking baths begins before seven, 
and this morning they were all off by eight to inspect Straw 
R 257 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

Island Lighthouse, where, indeed, the rest of the party are at 
this moment. It is always understood that I go or don't go 
just as the humour suits me. No plans are ever made more than 
an hour or two in advance, as, of course, the weather decides 
everything. We are now in the Isles of Arran, and I am writing 
within sight of the arid-looking rocks where, in what seems at 
first sight the most unlikely of places, the maidenhair flourishes. 

" We have the same old cook who has been with us, I believe, 
since I first went round ; an old man with spectacles. He does 
things well according to his lights and resources, and we have 
the same dishes exactly year after year. You would enjoy the 
lobsters ! They are, however, plain boiled, and when dished 
are not equal to yours ! The consumption of them is vast. 
Someone said thunder was fatal to lobsters. This being doubted, 
I was referred to, and I said I thought lighthouse inspection was 
much more dangerous from the lobsters' point of view! 

"Poor Douglas has quite broken down. It is a pity he could 
not see the completion of the Fastnet. They have been going 
ahead with that great work (you remember the stones at Penrhyn). 
On one fine day lately they put down twenty-seven ! 

" The good weather has left us for the present. Yesterday 
there was a bad roll on. We are generally tied up by the nose in 
harbour by dinner-time (eight). But yesterday this was not 
possible, and two of the party thought it would be safer for 
them not to come down. 

" We are now just getting up the anchor. There are two other 
lights to be visited in the Arran Islands, and then we have a 
run of fifty miles to Galway. At Galway we shall stay to- 
morrow (Saturday), taking in coal, and we shall not leave until 
early on Monday morning. I don't think we much relish this 
part of the business, but some of them have their bicycles and 
look forward to a spin. Of course, there is the usual run of 
stories on board. Here is a specimen : 

"'Carman {log.): "Well, your honour, thim motor-cars will 
niver bate the horses ! Sure, if they'd had motor-cars instead of 
horses in Maffykin, sorrow a mouthful would the poor soldgers 
have had to ate in the sage! " 

"I have, of course, heard nothing of home news since I left. 
I am looking forward to getting a budget when we reach Galway 
this evening. There ought to be a big accumulation of letters 
there. The warm sea bath in the morning is glorious ! " 

To a friend (June i6th, 1900) : 

"I joined ship at Killybegs, and we have had a beautiful 
cruise so far. I greatly enjoyed it. (It is hard for me to write in 
this deck-house with such interruptions as the following : Rial! 
(loq.): *A housemaid at my father's gave notice of leaving 


Scientific Adviser to Irish Lights Board 

because the footman had called her a Kaffir.' ' Do you know 
what a Kaffir is ? ' asked Captain Riall. ' No, I don't, but I'm 
none o' them sort! ' This led to many others, of course.) Cap- 
tain Walker, son of the ex-Chancellor, is a recent addition to the 
party on board. 

"We are now tied up in Galway Dock for coaling to-day, 
and for prayers to-morrow. A fleeting wish to be a cyclist has 
animated me this morning, for nine of the party are going ofiF 
on a ride to Oughterard, or elsewhere. I shall work this morn- 
ing, and go to see the salmon fishing, and call on the new Presi- 
dent of the Queen's College this afternoon. The decay here is 
terrible, yet the inhabitants are such fine-looking people. I was 
greatly struck with them in the Isles of Arran yesterday, as I 
have often been before. The girls are so good-looking, clean 
and picturesque, and so modest that they will not look at you 
unless you address them, and then, in a sweet voice, comes : 
' Good morning, kindly ! ' " 

The Captain Riall referred to in the above letter was an 
old and dearly loved shipmate. He has been good enough to 
send me the following anecdote relating to the Scientific 
Adviser : 

"There was a discussion at the Church Congress in Dublin 
pro and con. the Darwinian theory of Natural Selection. 

Dr. spoke against it, saying : ' Look, for instance, at the 

shark, a malignant monster with eyes on one side of his head 
and a mouth on the other. Under natural selection no such 
creature could exist.' 

"Sir Robert, who subsequently took part in the discussion, 
said : ' While agreeing with some of the speaker's statements, 
I think that he is wrong in one respect. He does an injustice 
to the shark. I know him to be quite tender-hearted; but, like 
all other creatures, he requires food. Nature kindly steps in 
and places his eyes on one side of his head and his mouth 
on the other, so that he may not witness the struggles of his 
dying victims ! ' " 

On one trip he wrote to his daughter (Mrs. Barcroft) : 

" The Waves of the Atlantic, Longest Day, 1900. 

" I should so like to peep at you in your bridesmaid's costume 
at the wedding of your beloved friend. When I see your beau- 
tiful friendships (for such indeed they are) I am reminded of the 
words : ' Those friends thou hast and their adoption tried, 
grapple them to thyself with hoops of steel.' My blessings on 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

you this day and all days. I hope to be back in time to see 

■Miss , or , or whatever I am to call her, but at the 

moment we are the plaything of the winds and waves. Having 
remained at anchor all yesterday, we started at four this morn- 
ing and have been going ever since. Now we are on our way 
to the Skelligs. 

" I had one nice flirtation with a dear little child of four at 
Galway, the grandchild of my old friend Professor Allman. 
Such a pretty little mite with a black eye which she got at the 
swing a couple of days before. She preferred sitting on my 
knee to going to her tea, and when she was induced to go, she 
was back again in no time, having only eaten one piece of bread 
and butter in contravention of all principles of nursery laws." 

To his wife (June 22nd, 1903) : 

"The longest day was one of the loveliest days I ever saw. 
We spent it at the Arran Islands. We went to church in the 
most primitive manner, and then we had long walks through the 
maidenhair-bearing rocks to the famous Dun Angus. I got 
many ' snaps.' The people are wonderfully improved ; they are 
all so clean and so picturesquely dressed and have such nice little 

" But this morning the fine weather broke. We started at 
4 A.M., and reached Loop Head at the entrance of the Shannon 
at 8 A.M. There we landed before breakfast, and it was, I think, 
the very nastiest landing I have ever seen. The sea was wildly 
dashing the boat at the foot of a cliff of most slippery ledges of 
rock, up which we had to scramble. They are all so kind and 
helpful to me that we got up all right, but the getting down was 
even worse. However, I was glad to show there was some life 
in me still. 

" I got your budget at Tarbert, and the letters lie all round 
me on the table." 

No part of the apparatus or appliances for lighthouses, light- 
ships, etc., escaped his attention. Writing on "Waterloo Day," 
1900, to his son Robert, he alluded to the economy of the oil 
engine which is used for compressing air at some stations, and 
continued : 

" A nice application is to be found on the new lightship on the 
Coningbeg station. There is a very heavy cable and mooring 
anchor for a lightship which is difficult to raise under ordinary 
circumstances on the rare occasions when it is necessary to do so. 
A powerful steam winch is used for the purpose ; but instead of 
using steam, the compressed air for the sirens is turned into the 


Scientific Adviser to Irish Lights Board 

"We inspected a buoy yesterday which has a petroleum lamp 
which burns for a month in all weathers and under all circum- 
stances. It also whistles by the undulations of the waves. The 
whistling is a very mournful sound, but they say it is effective, 
and I am told that the sea is hardly ever, or never, so calm that 
the whistle does not work." 

His correspondent, Professor Charles Jasper Joly, the Irish 
Royal Astronomer, was not forgotten on these cruises. He 
wrote to him from Galway (July i6th, 1904) : 

" It seems a long time since I heard of you. I passed through 
Dublin on my way to join this cruise, but heard you were from 
home, so made no effort to get to Dunsink. 

"I hope you wnll have some papers for the B.A. Do give us 
one on Quaternions. I would so like if some impetus could be 
given to the study of this subject. 

" We have had a nice cruise from Kingstown round by the 
north in our new ship. About Eagle Island, off the comer of 
Donegal, we had the stiff est gale I ever remember on this coast. 
There was a tremendous sea, and we were glad to run in under 
the shelter of Achill Head. 

" I send you a few ' snaps ' I took last year. I got a good 
many pictures altogether, and I am trying this year to fill up some 
of the many Lacunce. There are many interesting optical pro- 
blems in the lighthouse. The whole system is being revolution- 
ised by floating the revolving apparatus in mercury. The friction 
is thus reduced to about the twentieth part of what it was before. 
A rapid rotation can be thus imparted even more easily than a 
slow rotation was possible before. The advantage which ensues 
in quickening the ' character ' of the flash cannot be overesti- 
mated. Instead of having to wait minutes, the mariner is now 
able to identify the light he is looking at in the course of a 
few seconds." 

On another occasion my father wrote : 

"My thoughts for the last fortnight have been entirely on 
lighthouses and navigation, buoys and beacons. The trip is one 
full of interest and instruction in every way. The only reading 
I have done in any other direction has been on the subject of 
earthquakes. I have been studying Milne's book with great 
interest. From his observatory in the Isle of Wight he can detect 
all earthquakes, and he has introduced to science a new and very 
remarkable earth constant. It is the time that an earth tremor 
requires to travel across the earth's diameter. This is clearly a 
fundamental constant requiring most accurate determination. It 
is about twenty minutes. He shows that this points to the earth 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

as being twice as rigid as steel. I have been interested in 
the matter because I have promised to give a lecture on the 
Nebular Theory, which, of course, branches out into earthquakes 
as well as in many other directions." 

To his sister, Mrs. Millington (July 9th, 1904) : 

" I g^t great amusement out of the camera, and a volume 
of my ' snaps ' round the coast last year has been received with 
enthusiasm on board. 

"Sunday. — Here we are lying at peace on a lovely day in 
Larne Harbour. Among our party is Scott, the engineer. He 
is a son of Archdeacon Scott, of Bray, and is a brilliant young 
fellow who has done splendid work already in the lighthouse 
service, and will do more. This annual trip with so many old 
friends has been one of the great enjoyments of my life. This 
year we have a new ship built for the purpose. They knew, of 
course, my habits by this time and that I spend many happy 
hours writing during the cruise. So I was a little touched by 
the chairman leading me up to the end of the saloon and show- 
ing me a writing table that had been specially bought for me 
(the captain was sent up to Dublin on purpose), with a sofa 
beside it on which I can take a nap whenever I feel inclined (and 
one does often feel so inclined at sea). I am in as great a con- 
dition of happiness as anyone has a right to be. Of course, I 
have my own snug little cabin as well, where I have most magnifi- 
cent sleeps at night till roused to take my bath in lovely sea 
water made as hot as I like to take it, by steam. Then half a 
dozen times a day the gig puts off to take us to some lighthouse 
or lightship, and at night the ship is tied up by the nose in 
harbour. Then there is such a flood of talk of lights, and buoys, 
of sandbanks, shipwrecks, fog signals, projects for new lights 
or for the improvement of old lights! But it is not infrequently 
mixed with other topics, and I do love to meet a bright Irish 

" I quite agree with you about liking to take ' people ' in the 
landscapes. I always wait, if possible, to get a Commissioner or 
two or a boat or something or other. The interest of the pictures 
is immensely increased if a few portraits can be recognised. 

" We had a ' bust up ' in our domestic establishment on this 
ship! On the day we lay at Kingstown, and when fourteen 
were expected at dinner, the cook deserted ! A new cook sent 
from Dublin has joined this morning." 

As stated in the above letter, my father made extensive 
use of his camera on the voyages round the Irish coast. He 
gave a lecture at Cambridge illustrated by slides made from 


Scientific Adviser to Irish Lights Board 

his own photographs, and wrote the following account of it to 
a friend (November 20th, 1905) : 

" I had a show here the other day at the Antiquarian Society 
of the seventy slides that resulted from the last lighthouse trip. 
I did not call it a lecture, as it was merely an exhibition of the 
pictures wnth a suitable libretto. Many of them I had not seen 
before on the screen. The audience seemed very well satisfied, 
and indeed I must say they were exceedingly good. I first drew 
a sketch on the blackboard of the Skellig generally, showing the 
ancient steps ; then I rubbed that out and I drew another picture 
showing the plan of the monastery, which I got out of Cook's 
book, as I tJiink I told you ; and then, having brought the 
audience into a proper frame of mind by reading bits from 
Miss Hull's book, and Miss Stokes' magnificent passage on the 
indescribable sadness of the spectacle, and having exhorted them 
that this was the appropriate frame of mind, provided that the 
sadness was of that species which was not ' akin to pain,' I 
took them step by step up the steps and showed them each of the 
objects on the plan. It did really well, though in the account I 
have just given I must say I have described rather what I now 
think I ought to have done than what I actually did do. For 
example, the sadness business only occurred to me last night. 
But the pictures are certainly very fine. If you ever care to have 
them for any show of yours I should be only too glad to lend 
them. The whole thing about these photographs is getting them 
developed properly." 

The solicitude of the Commissioners for his comfort in- 
creased as the years advanced. This is reflected in the follow- 
ing letter to Mrs. Barcroft, written from Galway Bay (June i6th, 
1910) : 

" I so often think of you and all your sweet love wherever 
I am, and certainly not least when I am on such a trip as the 

" We are now among the Arran Islands, which means that half 
the journey is over. It is more delightful than ever. A more 
harmonious party could not exist. They are all so kind to me. 
They make everything so easy, and gently dissuade me from 
landing whenever there are any difficulties. But indeed the 
weather has been so lovely that so far the landings have been 
very easy. Even at Eagle Island the gig could be brought to 
the rock, and this very rarely happens in this wildest of wild 

"I would like to take Henry* over this ship and show him 
• His grandson, Henry Barcroft, then at. six. 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

how the leadsman sounds to show how deep it is. Give my 
love to him and Robbie, also to Joe and to Violet." 

On June 9th, 1912, he wrote from Queenstown to his son 
Robert : 

" Many thanks for your letter. I was so glad to hear of the 
pretty celebration of Stella's birthday. We made a dash over 
to Fishguard. It is a fine harbour carved out of the side of a 
hill, and seems full of life and business. We had to take on 
board a cargo of guncotton, cartridges, and other combustibles 
for the fog-signal stations. The weather has been excellent. We 
are spending Sunday here. I have been taking things very 
quietly. I go ashore very little, but I greatly enjoyed trips in 
the steam launch up the river at Wexford and Dungarvon. 
Yesterday we went up to Cork in the Alexandra. There is 
very little traffic in Queenstown now ; not a vessel lying at 
anchor, and the inward liners are ceasing to call. They either 
go on to Fishguard or straight to Liverpool. The trip has done 
me much good already. They are all very kind and thoughtful. 
Love to Olga and the chicks." 

I have mentioned that my father always took Bentham's 
"British Flora" with him when on these cruises. It must be 
remembered that he was the son of a botanist, and that he 
inherited a love of botany. He was not one of your modern 
students, who is mainly concerned with the internal structure 
of plants. He was a botanist of the old school. In some re- 
spects his knowledge was amazing. On a country walk in 
springtime or early summer it was difficult to find a flowering 
plant which he could not name in English and in Latin. He 
could tell his companion where he had seen that plant before; 
how he had found it nestling in the crevices of rock on the 
Hill of Howth, or under the trees of the Dargle, or beneath 
the shadow of the Great Sugar Loaf. His wide knowledge 
of this fascinating department in botany stands well revealed 
in the pages of his "Bentham." 

In his copy of that excellent work, which he had had 
specially interleaved, he was wont to record the place at which 
he found any particular plant. It became in course of time 
what a lawyer would term a "noted-up " edition. Some of the 
entries were made as early as the year 1866. How he loved 
and treasured that book — his constant companion on every 
holiday — with its broken cover and thumb-marked pages I 


Scientific Adviser to Irish Lights Board 

I have examined this volume (which is now in the posses- 
sion of Sir Charles Ball) with a view to seeing whether it 
contained any entries of particular interest. With one excep- 
tion his memoranda relate merely to the places where, and 
times at which, various plants were found. The exception, 
however, is notable. It seems that his love of botany caused 
the astronomer to turn poet, and his effort was here recorded. 
He had found a plant named Elecampane amongst the ruins 
of an ancient monastery on Church Island, Waterville, Co. 
Kerry, a place which he often visited when cruising with the 
Commissioners. This plant is not indigenous, but is reported 
to have been cultivated in days gone by by the monks, who 
used a decoction of the leaves medicinally : 


On an island in Waterville's exquisite lake, 
Which mountains encompass with heather and brake, 
St. Finan resolved he would watch and would pray 
In the bleak winter night and the bright summer day. 

He built him a cell from the rude stones around. 
He erected a shrine which is still to be found ; 
He knelt and he chanted both early and late, 
And daily his orisons reached heaven's gate. 

He planted a garden in which he could grow 
The food which sufficed for his life here below ; 
His fastings were oft, and his diet was spare. 
So his labour produced all he needed as fare. 

As a part of the penance his goodness to test 
Dire bodily ailment most bitterly pressed ; 
So he planted a simple which banished the pain — 
That simple was only the Elecampane. 

He blessdd that herb which his good life preserved, 

And then wax^d great with renown well-deserved. 

Monks flocked to Lough Currane from France and from Spain, 

And settled where flourished the Elecampane. 

That shrine on the island, with sanctity blessed, 
For hundreds of years was the home of the best; 
The abbey increased, and come sun or come rain, 
In the garden still flourished the Elecampane. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

That church had its "day, and at last change began; 
The monks went elsewhere as the course of time ran ; 
The abbey was silent, then ruins became, 
But verdant as ever grew Elecampane. 

Again many hundreds of years have gone by. 
And most of the abbey does now prostrate lie; 
Inscriptions and carvings still point out its fane, 
And bright 'mid the ruins blows Elecampane. 

Though the tomb of the saint is a thousand years old, 
His spirit, we know, is in raptures untold. 
And his mouldering shrine — may it ever sustain 
The life of the beautiful Elecampane. 

Robert S. Ball. 
Waterville House, 

Co. Kerry. 

August i8th, 1905. 




ALTHOUGH the last twenty-one years of my father's life 
- were spent at Cambridge, he never wavered in his loyalty 
to his Alma yiater. He had given her of his best for many 
years, and while he was resident in Cambridge he never lost an 
opportunity of helping his old University. He was in frequent 
correspondence with her professors, and when he visited his 
native city seldom failed to spend some time within the 
portals of the beloved college. Nor was he forgotten by 
those of his old University. It is now an open secret that he 
was frequently consulted when there were professorial chairs 
to be filled; his ripe judgment and wide acquaintance among 
scientific men were of the utmost value to the Board of Trinity 
College when they were called upon to make educational ap- 
pointments. It would not be difficult to set down the names 
of several men still living who ascribe much of their material 
advancement to his kindly influence. 

His connection with Trinity College and Trinity men was 
also kept up through the medium of the Trinity College Dining 
Club, an institution founded for the purpose of bringing 
together past and present members of the college. They dine 
together once a year in London. Not only was he a constant 
and welcome member of the company on these occasions, but 
he was undoubtedly a "draw." Mr. Richard Ringwood, who 
has been secretary of the club for twenty-two years, wrote to 
me as follows on May 21st, 1914 : 

"I do not think I had any correspondence with your father 
beyond letters relative to our 'T.C.D.' dinners, which he was 
always delighted to attend when he could. But as hon. secre- 
tary for twenty-two years I may tell you that there was no 
more popular man in the club. Over and over again (when 
my circular had gone out) I have been asked : ' Is Ball 
coming? ' ' Is he going to speak? ' If he was, a ticket would 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

be taken at once. When your father spoke we all thoroughly 
enjoyed his playful allusions to Salmon, Traill, Mahaffy, Gray, 
and other T.C.D. celebrities well known to us graduates, and 
though we were dining in London we really felt that we were 
back in college. By the way, the impression which your 
father always left on my mind, rightly or wrongly, was that 
though he was a distinguished professor at Cambridge, living 
among English people, he remained Irish to the end, in his 
thoughts and affections, and in his manner and his love for his 
native country." 

I have found amongst my father's papers fairly complete 
notes of some of the speeches which he made at these gatherings. 
On May 9th, 1894, he proposed the toast, "Success to the Uni- 
versity of Dublin." Mr. Justice Henn Collins, who subse- 
quently became Master of the Rolls, and finally Lord Collins, 
was in the chair. In the course of his speech my father said : 

"Happy indeed is the college who possesses as its titular 
head a man who stands forth as an intellectual giant in the 
estimation of the world. Happy indeed is that University which 
has in its Provost a man whose extraordinary gifts are fitly 
accompanied by such graces as those which make the name 
of George Salmon dear to every graduate of our University. 
It has been indeed unfair to the human race that the goodness 
and the brains which would suffice to stock an ordinary college, 
have been in the case of Salmon concentrated into one indi- 
vidual. As a general rule I don't believe in the possession 
of universal knowledge. The claims made by Salmon's friends 
are much more moderate. We don't say he has universal 
knowledge ; there are, I think, not more than half a dozen 
subjects in which Dr. Salmon is absolutely superior to every 
other human being at the present time ; not that I intend to 
put any bound to his capabilities. A friend of mine — a very 
distinguished professor in our University — when he saw with 
what admirable skill and efficiency Dr. Salmon threw himself 
into the duties of a ceremonial character in connection with the 
Tercentenary Celebrations, made a remarkable pronouncement : 

"*I declare,' said he, 'anything the Provost tries to do 
he does better than any other man in the kingdom. I verily 
believe that if Dr. Salmon were to take it into his head that 
to teach dancing was a part of the duty of the Provost of 
Trinity College, Dublin, such an accomplished master of the 
terpsichorean art would never before have guided the steps of 
the learners I ' 

"Dr. Salmon writes about Conic Sections — and his work has 


Later Association with Trinity College 

been a quarry in which all other writers at home and abroad 
have ever since mined without even yet exhausting its resources. 
Dr. Salmon lays aside his mathematics, says he has forgotten 
all about them, and turns to theology — forthwith all other 
theologians in the kingdom take a back seat. His books on 
theology are not only profound, but they are actually amusing ; 
jokes — aye, and excellent jokes, too — are to be found in volumes 
which no ecclesiastical library, from that of the Archbishop of 
Canterbury down to that of the rawest curate, can possibly 
be without. 

"Dr. Salmon retired from playing chess for the simple 
reason that he had no one else to beat. 

"I remember well the first speech he made. It was not 
a great success; and now, as everybody knows, there is no 
pulpit orator more effective, there is no voice on the platform 
which speaks with a more genuine and a more telling eloquence. 

"And yet, if I were asked what the most remarkable char- 
acteristics of our dear Provost are, I think I should say his 
gentle simplicity, his unaffected kindliness, and his exquisite 
sympathy. He has 'a heart for friendship formed,' and to 
own that friendship is one of the privileges which an asso- 
ciation with our dear old University enables us to enjoy. 

"I hardly like to trust myself to speak in detail of the 
present members of the staff of Trinity College, Dublin. They 
are all of them well known to most of us. I am proud to 
think that many of them are my very warm personal friends ; 
but on an occasion of this sort we are bound to set forth the 
claims of our Universitv to the intellectual respect of the world. 

"There has been no greater source of pride to every lover 
of our Alma Mater than to watch the gradual development of 
that school of classical learning for which Trinity College, 
Dublin, is now so famous. I have no knowledge, I am sorry 
to say, of such matters personally. But I know the common 
repute in which our classical workers are held; I know that 
in no universities in the kingdom, or out of it, are two classical 
professors spoken of with greater respect than Professor Tyrrell 
and Professor Palmer. 

"And now we discern a school of history arising in Trinity 
College, Dublin, and the name of Bury, young though Bury is, 
has already taken its place among the very foremost ranks of 

" In science, also, Trinity College is ever in the van. It 
has taken a generation or tw^o to begin to realise the stupendous 
scientific achievements of William Rowan Hamilton, and many 
generations will probably have yet to elapse before the world is 
fully aware of that stupendous intellectual effort known as ' The 
Theory of Quaternions.' Professor Tait, a Scotsman, accus- 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

tomed to weigh his words, and probably the only man in the 
kingdom fully qualified to pronounce on the matter, has deliber- 
ately laid it down that Napoleon and William Rowan Hamilton 
are the two most remarkable individuals of modern times. 

"It was only the other day that I read a paper by a distin- 
guished Cambridge professor in which he once again said that 
MacuUagh's treatment of the great problem of light was un- 
questionably the greatest advance that has ever been made in 
the theoretical branches of that subject. 

"And the mathematical repute given to our University by 
the giants of the past is upheld to-day. I find everywhere 
that when a man wants to know his differential calculus, it is 
to Williamson that he goes. If he wants to know how to 
solve an equation, he looks up his ' Burnside and Panton.' If 
he has to face the arduous problems of mechanics, he gets his 
best help from Minchin or from Tarleton. 

" In physics also the University of Dublin maintains its 
worthy repute. There is no name more fit to conjure by in 
all matters where the profoundest knowledge of light and heat 
or electricity is concerned than the name of George Francis 
FitzGerald. With an instinct that seems almost miraculous, 
FitzGerald has the power of taking in the subtlest operations 
of Nature. Often and often have I heard FitzGerald's opinion 
on the very deepest questions of physics quoted as final 
authority in the matter. 

"But the time would fail me were I to attempt to tell of 
ail the other labours that have come from the Fellows and 
Professors of Trinity College, Dublin. 

"Unbounded sorrow was felt in Ireland at the death of Sir 
Robert Stewart. It was realised that one of the greatest musical 
geniuses of modern times had passed away. 

"Nor can I talk of Abbott's learned disquisitions on all 
subjects from the ' Tides ' to the Codex Sinaiticus, of Pro- 
fessor Atkinson's philological studies — or of his recreations, 
which include learning a new language every six months ! 

"Time would fail me to tell of all the books with which 
Mahaffy has charmed and delighted so many readers, as it 
would to enumerate the various books and treatises with which 
Dr. Haughton has illustrated his many-sided sympathies." 

He took the chair at the dinner on May 8th, 1895. I" 
the course of his speech he said : 

"We remember how, on that awful day of entrance, we 
crept up to our tutor's rooms at half-past eight, and with a 
few other timid youths tapped gently at the door, to be ad- 
mitted to that dreary festivity known as the ' Entrance Break- 


Later Association with Trinity College 

fast.' I believe we all had much better appetites for our dinner 
in the evening than we had for the ' Sally Lunns ' at that 
solemn function ! How we trembled at the advice of the tutor 
as to how we were to comport ourselves ! How gratified we 
felt at his cheerful assurance that, bad as we might think 
ourselves, it was highly probable that there might be others 
in the hall who were even worse. My mind received on that 
day a photographic impression of the Hall Porter which it has 
never lost. Even to this day I regard that man with a degree 
of respect which I have never been able to accord even to a 
Cabinet Minister. Those were, indeed, the days when we did 
feel reverence ! You all remember how you looked upon a 
man who had just taken his degree with more profound admira- 
tion and respect than any human being has ever received from 
you since ! 

"Then, too, in the hall on that fateful day, what supreme 
moments of anxiety ! You will remember the awful period 
of suspense before you knew whether for the Latin composition 
paper you had got a '2,' or whether you had risen to the 
heights of a ' 3.' You remember how you fruitlessly gazed for 
inspiration on the marble angels round the hall. You re- 
member your anxieties as to the extent to which dear old Dick 
Townsend (peace be to his ashes !) would be successful in 
cajoling the Senior Lecturer to relax his rules in your inte- 
rest. You will remember how you thought your supremest 
moment had come when you rose from your seats at the 
entrance of the Provost. 

"You will remember how you compared notes as to the 
temper of this examiner, and how you walked into the traps 
set for you by that ! You will remember the moments of 
delirious rapture when the Bursar condescended to accept your 
;^I5, and how you walked on air from the gates of the college 
up Dame Street, and felt that you too belonged to that great 
institution — T.C.D. ! You, my friends, have had many suc- 
cesses in after life, but I ask you — did any success ever equal 
the pride and delight with which affectionate parents and 
sisters rushed out to greet you at the door, when you told 
them that vou — yes, you — were a member of Trinity College, 

"I remember the first debate I ever heard at the ' Historical.' 
The Society was addressed by two young fellows named Lecky 
and Plunkett.* The world now knows who those two voung 
fellows were ! 

"A notable example of the grit of T.C.D. men was pro- 
vided the other day. We have ahvays had a friendly and 

• Now Lord Rathmore. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

sympathetic feeling for the Queen's Colleges, and we wish them 
and their graduates every prosperity. But an illustration of 
what can be done is provided in the case of President Moffat, 
the distinguished scholar who has presided over the Galway 
College so long and so ably. The authorities thought that it 
was time for him to retire owing to advancing years. But the 
gallant President did not agree with them. They went as far as 
to dismiss him, but still he would not go. At last they sought 
an interview. The result was that he was reinstated, and a 
remarkable scene, unparalleled in the sober history of the 
Queen's College, took place. The students and the whole town 
of Galway turned out to welcome the return of their venerated 
President ! Long may he live to preside over the institution 
whose dignity he has so splendidly vindicated." 

Sir Robert was present again at the dinner in 1901, when 
Lord Macnaghten was in the chair. On this occasion he had 
something to say about college finance ; 

"The splendid success of T.C.D. is due to many causes. 
It is due to the admirable material on which it has to work; 
and it is due to the sound commonsense principles on which 
it is worked. 

"Let me illustrate this. In other establishments prudent 
finance has gone to the four winds of heaven. Is there now 
any institution with a penny piece in its coffers ? Certainly 
the British Exchequer is not one of them. And why? Simply 
because they have forgotten the good old fundamental principle 
that it is a fatal mistake to publish a balance-sheet ! Nobody 
would be left with a sixpence if he proclaimed to the world all 
he had. The sixpence would be seized the moment he admitted 
its possession ! Trinity College has avoided all that nonsense. 
They never divulge their accounts. They put their affairs into 
the hands of a highly capable and trustworthy Bursar, who is 
one of their own body, and they bid him manage their affairs. 
He does manage them, and manages them well. 

"Let a Fellow or Professor come to the Bursar of T.C.D. 
with some pet fad in which the Bursar does not believe, and 
try to wheedle some money out of him ! Much chance he has ! 
The Bursar is civil ; he even appears to be sympathetic. * But, 
my dear fellow,' I can hear him say, ' I assure you our affairs 
are greatly straitened,' etc., and the applicant is gently but 
effectively repulsed. But when some really important matter 
affecting the welfare or dignity of the college is involved the 
finances take an extraordinary turn for the better, and a stately 
building or a new Chair is founded ! That is what I call 
good financial management, but it is wholly incompatible with 


Later Association with Trinity College 

that ridiculous pandering to impertinent curiosity involved in 
the publication of a balance-sheet. 

"I was for eighteen years a professor in T.C.D., and I had 
experience of bursars in both these moods. More than half that 
time my dear old friend, and a dear old friend of many present, 
the late Rev. Dr. Stubbs, was Bursar. When I had left 
T.C.D. and came to Cambridge I maintained an affection for 
Dr. Stubbs to the last day of his life, 

"One day I said to him: 'Dr. Stubbs, I am no longer 
Professor; you are no longer Bursar. There need be no humbug 
between us any longer; you can have no possible object in 
humbugging me now. Do tell me what you raised for the 
college during the thirteen years you were Bursar?' He im- 
mediately pulled out his pocket-book, on a page of which the 
figures I wanted were clearly written. He had indeed been a 
faithful steward. He had raised for the college either in fixed 

capital or in cash the sum of no less than Well, no ! 

I will not tell you the exact sum. I will not give away the 
college affairs. 

"The Board that rules the college is the same as it was the 
last time we met here. The Board often has its difficulties. It 
has its difficulties like the rest of us. But it has ruled T.C.D., 
and the success of T.C.D. — the great success of T.C.D. — is 
a proof that the rule of the Board, although it is not quite so 
swift to adopt reform as some of its more precipitate advisers 
would like, has been a wise and beneficent rule, and has been of 
infinite advantage to the university. 

"And now I have done. I thank you all for the heartiness 
with which you have welcomed the toast of the T.C.D. I 
know there are many things I have left out. I have left unsaid 
the things I ought to have said, but I am naturally consoled by 
the reflection that I have said the things which I ought not to 
have said. I resume my seat with the same feeling as that of 
an eminent counsel who at the end of his career was asked if 
he did not feel disturbed at the thought that by his skilful 
advocacy criminals had escaped justice. ' No,' he said, * that 
does not oppress me. It is counterbalanced by the reflection 
that I have sent so many innocent men to the gallows that, on 
the average, justice has been done.' " 

On another of these occasions he alluded to degrees for 
women. Having pointed out that T.C.D. was the first of the 
old universities to "remove the barriers" and grant degrees, 
he continued : 

"But the removal of the barriers does not immediately 
produce the desired result. At the Zoo the old bars of the 
s 273 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

lion's cage, which would have kept in a locomotive, were re- 
placed by lighter ones. The public were quite satisfied ; but 
the lions were found cowering in the corners with timidity. 
They thought the bars were to keep the public from attacking 
them ! " 

Of the late Sir David Gill, who was a guest at one of the 
T.C.D. dinners, my father said : 

"He is one of my oldest friends. He is the most distin- 
guished practical British astronomer since Bradley who has 
presided over one of our national observatories. As Royal 
Astronomer at the Cape of Good Hope, he has made dis- 
coveries more valuable than all the treasures of the Rand. He 
now draws near to the close of his service. We give to him 
the heartiest of welcomes, not so much for his practical ser- 
vices, not so much for his great discoveries; we welcome 
him as one who, with the purest and most single-minded 
purpose, has devoted himself to the search after truth." 

Sir Robert was ever ready to come forward in the interests 
of his old University when her privileges were threatened. The 
establishment of the old National University of Ireland has 
rendered Trinity College secure, but in 1907 her interests were 
thought to be menaced by Mr. Bryce's previous scheme. A 
meeting of protest was assembled at the Middle Temple Hall 
on Monday, March 25th, under the presidency of Lord Rath- 
more, when Sir Robert proposed the following resolution, 
which was carried unanimously : 

"That this meeting protests against any legislation which 
would transform the University of Dublin into a university 
comprising colleges identified with different religious denomina- 
tions and animated by conflicting educational ideals ; and, 
further, records its belief that such change would introduce 
sectarian division into the administration of the University, and 
subject teaching and research to limitations injurious to liberal 
education and free inquiry. 

"This protest is made not on political grounds, but solely 
in the interests of liberal education." 

His later association with Trinity College is also reflected 
in his letters. In June, 1900, the Provost (Dr. Salmon) had 


Later Association with Trinity College 

invited him to be present at a Scholars' dinner. Sir Robert 
having accepted, the Provost wrote as follows : 

"I am glad you are coming to our Scholars' dinner, where I 
have no doubt you will meet many old friends. As we do not 
go in largely for oratory I have no chance of getting a speech out 
of you, and I fear that on that evening I can hope to see little of 
you. Your brother Charles tells me that he expects you to arrive 
on Friday. So I have asked him to bring you with him to a quiet ^ 

dinner on the Saturday. Possibly I may have two or three others 
of our guests who will have come over in anticipation. At all 
events, I shall have no difficulty in making up a little party of 
your old friends." 

Here is a letter from the Provost, to whom he had sent a 
copy of the "Theory of Screws " : 

" I think I told you how many weeks I have had of very poor 
health. It was a surprise to me this morning in attempting to 
clear my table to find among the contents a presentation copy of 
your ' Theory of Screws,' which I have no recollection of having 
received, though the book has been taken out of its wrappings 
and laid on my table. 

" The unconscious self who acts for me has of very late years 
extended his province most unrighteously, and so often omits to 
tell me of his doings that I spend half my time in looking for 
things he has hid away ! I cannot, therefore, venture to say that 
I did not know of the arrival of your present, and though it 
would surprise me very much if you were to tell me that I had 
at the time written to thank you for it, yet other things that have 
occurred would forbid my being absolutely incredulous. But as 
to the best of my belief I made no acknowledgment, let me do so 
now. I am by no means so worthy of your gift as I might have 
been a few years ago, and my reading of the work is likely to 
be superficial. But this morning I received from the Cambridge 
University Press a second volume of Adams's memoirs, and 
though I am likely to read less of them than of your work, yet 
from my regard for the man the gift has given me great pleasure ; 
and your gift gives me pleasure of the same kind. My con- 
science smites me, as I ought not to have been deterred from 
sending you a copy of my sermons by the unlikelihood that you 
would care to read any of them. I send a copy now, and, after 
all, I dare say you will like to read what I say about Adams 
(page 1 8). 

" I also omitted to thank your daughter and you for the new 
photograph, which, if I were to follow King Hiram's bad 
example of looking a gift horse in the mouth (l Kings ix., 12, 13), 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

I should call ' Cabul ' as not being a ' pleasing ' likeness. How- 
ever, I shall not be filling the new photo book until after the 
Long Vacation, and I shall then have to consider whether you 
will be more truthfully represented to posterity by an agreeable 
likeness even in bad condition than by a very grave and serious 
one in good preservation." 

In January, 1904, certain letters passed between him and 
Professor Joly, who had suggested an alteration in the method 
of awarding Fellowships in Trinity College. They were then 
(as they are still) awarded by competitive examination. Pro- 
fessor Joly (whose letter is not before me) had apparently 
suggested that the dissertation system which is in vogue at 
Cambridge should be adopted in Dublin. Sir Robert wrote 
in reply':' " ' 

" If I have not answered your letter on the important Fellow- 
ship question before, it is not because I am indifferent but rather 
because of the great difficulty of the problem. There is also an- 
other personal point which I may illustrate by the ever sagacious 
Provost. When Cayley died, the Electing Board, who were to 
appoint his successor, referred the matter to Darwin and me as a 
Committee to advise our colleagues as to the man to be chosen. 
It was agreed between us that I was to seek advice from Klein 
and Salmon, of course in the most private manner. Klein wrote 
a characteristic letter and a very serviceable one. Salmon said 
it would be utterly wrong for an official in one University to 
offer advice to another University on such a matter, and Cathcart 
said he thought this was the sound view. The upshot was that 
Forsyth was appointed. 

" I don't say that this case is analogous to the present one, 
but I do feel there is something in Salmon's argument, and so, 
as a Cambridge professor, I feel a little shy in discussing the 
matter, perhaps the more so because I was not a very successful 
Fellowship candidate myself! 

"After this exordium you will, I fear, be greatly disappointed 
at the beggarly paucity of my thoughts, but I will set them 
down such as they are. 

" I quite see what you say as to the risk peculiar to Ireland 
of a religious row arising out of the presentation of original 
essays by two different men on different subjects, if one of these 
men went to Mass and the other to church, and if the election to 
the fellowship depended on the relative merit of the essays. 

" But in the present system is there not also a risk of the same 
kind ? Suppose an R.C. was purely a classic and an Orangeman 
a mathematician. They would be competing on lines so totally 


Later Association with Trinity College 

different that there would be the makings of a nice religious fight 
if the Orangeman got in. 

" I like your scheme about the readers, but here is the diffi- 
culty. How can you guarantee that classes will be obtained to 
listen to these lectures ? Over here I know this would occur to 
everybody as a difficulty. I know a man here, a Fellow in 
Trinity, who is, I believe, a very able man. His lectures are 
attended by a class of two, of whom one is his wife ! There 
are many of us here who are glad to get even two in a class 
(Cay ley, however, told me that he regarded two as the irre- 
ducible minimum), and unless in the popular subjects or com- 
pulsory tutorial lectures, a class of half a dozen is considered 
extremely good. Suppose you had a clever young reader — a 
future FitzGerald — who would lecture, say, on ' An Electro- 
dynamical Theory of Spiral Nebulae ' (this is actually a course 
announced here by Whittaker), would he get a class ? Perhaps, 
however, it is intended that as a reader he should give a set of 
tutorial and elementary lectures. But, then, that hardly gives 
a promising man of science an opportunity for distinction. And 
after all, is the capacity to teach an elementary class a very 
useful test ? I have heard that rumour says even FitzGerald 
himself would not have scored very high in that particular. 

"I am afraid it would be very difficult to carry through a 
scheme like that you have sketched. I think the religious diffi- 
culty might also arise in estimating the merits of the reader. 
Indeed, the risk of the religious difficulty must be faced in every 

" Mathematical Fellows here of the best type are Smith's 
Prizemen or runners up ; and the Fellowship is decided on the 
Tripos and an essay, which essay not infrequently is the Smith's 
Prize essay (for, as you know, the Smith's Prize is awarded solely 
for an essay). 

" Would it not be possible to leave the Fellowship examination 
as it is at present, but to allow half-marks in each subject for an 
original piece of work, in MS. or print ? The difficulty of study- 
ing the essay is an onerous matter for the examiners. 

" I wish I could have rendered you more service, or, indeed, 
any at all. I have lots more to say on other subjects, but it is 
I A.M. ! " 

Professor Joly wrote a reply, in the course of which he 
said : 

" In spite of your modesty, I may tell you that one of the 
strongest arguments with a good many men in favour of a 
change is the fact that you did not get a FellowTship ! " 




'T^HE reader who has not skipped the first chapter of this 
-»- volume will remember that my grandfather, Dr. Robert 
Ball, was intimately connected with the Royal Zoological 
Society of Ireland. My father inherited a love of animals, 
and throughout his life took a lively interest in the Society. 

Sir Robert's earliest recollection was an incident of a zoo- 
logical character. I found the following memorandum amongst 
the notes which he had prepared for a chapter on "The Zoo " : 

"The giraffe arrived in Dublin on June 19th, 1844. I 
remember this quite well, although I was only four years old 
at the time." 

His connection with the Dublin Zoo may be thus briefly 
recorded: He became a member in 1861. In January, 1869, 
he was elected to the Council, and from that time on, he took 
an active share in the affairs of the Society. When Astron- 
omer Royal for Ireland, he made a point of attending the 
Saturday morning breakfasts at the Gardens, greatly enjoying 
the walk from Dunsink across the Phoenix Park. After the 
"high " bicycle came into general use, but before the "safety " 
was invented, he used to ride to the Gardens on a peculiar 
machine known as the " Facile " — by no means an easy method 
of locomotion when judged by modern standards. 

How his services were appreciated is shown by the Society's 
action in 1890. On December 21st, 1889, he received the 
following letter from his brother, Professor Valentine Ball, 
C.B., F.R.S., who was then the Secretary of the Society : 

" Haughton's five years as President are up, and under the 
rules he cannot be re-elected. A strong opinion w^s expressed 
that you should be elected, but after a statement by me it was 
decided to defer election till I had communicated with you. I 
told them of our conversation, but they were resolute to have 
you. What do you think ? " 


The Dublin Zoo 

A desire so strongly expressed by the Council could not 
be withstood, and he was elected President of the Society in 
January, 1890, for a period of five years, in succession to 
the Rev. Dr. Haughton. 

His Cambridge appointment, however, rendered it neces- 
sary for him to resign before he had served the full term. 
At a meeting of the Council on March 5th, 1892, the following 
resolution was proposed by Mr. Hogg, seconded by Mr. 
Findlater, and passed unanimously : 

"The Council of the R.Z.S.I., while congratulating the Uni- 
versity of Cambridge on having secured for the Lowndean Chair 
of Astronomy so illustrious an Irishman as Sir Robert Ball, 
F.R.S., Astronomer Royal of Ireland and President of the 
R.Z.S.I., beg to convey to him this expression of their sincere 
regret at his departure from Ireland, and their sense of the loss 
sustained by the Society in consequence." 

A further step taken by the Council to show their appre- 
ciation of his services is thus recorded in my father's own 
words : 

"Before I left Dublin for Cambridge the Council of the 
Royal Zoological Society entertained me at a dinner at the 
Royal Marine Hotel, Kingstown, on June ist, 1892. Dr. 
Traill, subsequently Provost of Trinity College, presided. 
Among the speakers were my valued friends Dr. Salmon, then 
Provost, Dr. Mahaffy, Dr. Ingram, my old tutor, then Presi- 
dent of the Royal Irish Academy, Mr. Justice Munro, and 
the Lord Mayor. I had to propose the health of the Council 
of the Royal Zoological Society, and perhaps I may be per- 
mitted to set down a few sentences of what I said : 

" ' As I look over the list of the Council, there is hardly 
a name in it which is not full of pleasant associations and of 
old ties of friendship in connection with useful and delightful 
work. My obligations to the Council are far too numerous to 
specify, but there is one to which it will be impossible not to 
refer. It is now thirty-five years since the death of my father, 
a devoted Secretary of the Society. My mother and her familv 
found in the Council and the members of the Royal Zoological 
Society a host of friends who, at a very critical period, rendered 
assistance of the most substantial and valuable description. 
My brothers and I have never forgotten this, and we never 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

shall. Among those members of the Society who then came 
forward in this spontaneous and generous manner I am glad 
to see two here present to-night. I refer to my very old and 
valued friends Maxwell Hutton and Perceval Wright. United 
as I am to the Council of the Zoological Society by bonds so 
old, so dear, and so intimate, is it any wonder that I am speak- 
ing with all my heart when I give you the toast of "The Council 
of the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland '' ? ' " 

Many were the stories which he used to tell of the Zoo- 
logical Gardens. He always said that there was no form of 
business transaction so uncertain as the sale or purchase of 
a wild animal. In the numerous encounters which they had 
with the animal dealers the Council often came off second best. 
He told of a bear which never left its cage "even when the 
door was open," for the all-sufficient reason that it suffered from 
spinal paralysis at and since the time of purchase ! A letter 
written on October 24th, 1899, to Dr. Cunningham, Professor 
of Anatomy in the University of Dublin and Secretary of the 
Zoo, which is preserved in the archives of the Society, is of 
interest in this connection. It should be mentioned that Cullen, 
who is referred to, was a factotum in the house at Granby Row, 
Dublin, where my father spent his childhood : 

" On looking over some letters the other day in search of an 
autograph of my father, I came on one which will, I think, inte- 
rest you. I will show you the original sometime, but cannot resist 
sending you an extract. Please observe that the date of the 
letter is June i8th, 1847. It was addressed by 'Robert Ball,' 
Secretary of the Society, to his son ' Robert S. Ball,' then six 
years old, and it refers to my brother Val, then three years old. 
The extract is as follows : 

"*I bought to-day a sloth for £i<,- I am afraid it is a bad 
bargain, as he has a cold, and is sick already. I also bought a 
great snake nine feet long. He was very weak, so Cullen got 
a jug full of calf's blood and we poured it down its throat. 
Val was not a bit afraid either of the snake or the sloth.' 

"This letter is, I think, worthy of your attention, inasmuch 
as it is a communication from the existing Secretary to a future 
President. It also contains an important reference to a future 
Secretary. You will observe that my brother Val, even at the 
age of three, displayed that intrepidity in the presence of wild 
beasts which he showed in the slaughter of ferocious animals in 
India, and in the management of the Zoo! You will also note 
the valuable prescription for a sick snake, though unfortunately 


The Dublin Zoo 

the result of the heroic remedy is not recorded. I can well imagine 
the scene, with Cullen and my father pouring the blood down the 
snake's throat in our back kitchen. I also call to mind the look 
of saintly resignation on the face of our old cook at seeing her 
sanctuary made the scene of an operation so remarkable. But 
the principal point involved in this interesting letter is that not 
only was the snake a sickly one, but the sloth had a latent, and 
we have only too good reason to believe, a mortal cold at the 
time of purchase! You will note that even in those days the 
Secretary was ' had ' by the animal dealers ! " 

It may be mentioned — in order to show that the family of 
Ball is still closely connected with the Dublin Zoo — that Sir 
Charles Ball, Bart., has been President since 1909. 

Other than financial difficulty sometimes attended the pur- 
chase of animals. Sir Robert wrote as follows in his "Zoo 
notes " : " It was part of the duty of the Secretary to buy such 
animals as might come into the market from time to time. 
Occasionally he was sent to examine the beasts for sale on the 
premises of the dealer. On one occasion the Secretary had been 
on an expedition of this kind, and he recounted his adventures 
at the breakfast on the following Saturday morning. His 
report was something like this : ' I heard,' he said, ' that Mr. 
(naming a dealer then well known) had a fine baboon for sale, 
and upon writing to ascertain the price, he invited me to come 
and inspect it. I had never been to his place before, and 
rather expected to see a miniature Zoological Gardens. To my 
surprise I found the collection of animals was kept in what 
was little better than an ordinary house. Every nook and 
cranny in every room from basement to roof seemed to be full 
of cages containing every imaginable kind of bird and beast. 
A giraffe occupied a room on the ground floor, there being a 
hole in the ceiling through which he could extend his long 
neck to its full height ! As I passed up a narrow staircase to 
the upper story various beasts made grabs at me through the 
bars of cages fastened to the walls, so that I had to keep on 
the banister side of the stairs as far as possible. When we 
reached the top floor the proprietor opened the door of a 
garret, announcing that the baboon I had come to see was 
kept there in a cage by itself. We entered the room. True, 
the great beast was in a cage, but it was so much out of 
repair that I felt rather nervous. My apprehension was in- 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

creased when the animal, maddened by what he evidently- 
considered an intrusion on his privacy, made wild endeavours 
to escape. He shook the bars with all his might. Finally he 
did manage to break through one side of the cage. Instantly 
my companion rushed through the door, shut it behind him with 
a bang, and left me face to face with the largest and most 
terrific baboon I had ever seen. "Let me out ! Let me out ! " 
I cried, banging on the door of the apartment. "I daren't," 
was the reply. "If that brute gets out he is certain to kill 
somebody ! " ' That is the Secretary's story so far as I can 
remember it. Whether the baboon was purchased ultimately 
by the Zoo I do not know." 

In 1899 Sir Robert was invited to speak at the opening of 
the Haughton House, which now adorns the Gardens. Dr. 
Cunningham, in sending the invitation, wrote : 

" There will not be much speaking ; in fact, only yourself 
and the Lord-Lieutenant. Of course, your part would be to 
say something of Haughton, and of the motives which actuated 
us in raising the memorial. I realise that this is a very great 
favour to ask you, but you know how the Council feel towards 
you, and how they would not consider the function complete 
without your presence." 

It should be mentioned in connection with the address 
delivered on this occasion that Dr. Haughton had been joint 
Secretary of the Gardens with Professor M' Dowel from 1862 
to 1863, and Secretary from 1868 to 1884. He had been Presi- 
dent from 1885 to 1889. Throughout this period he was the 
guide, philosopher and friend of the Council, and the best 
animal physician it was possible to procure. 

On a lovely day in May, 1899, to a distinguished gathering 
which included the Lord-Lieutenant and the late Lord Roberts 
of Kandahar, who was then President of the Society, Sir Robert 
spoke as follows : 

"My first words must express to your Excellency the grati- 
tude of the members of the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland 
for the honour of your presence on this memorable occasion. 
I can assure you that I use these words in no mere conventional 
sense. The many valued old friends of the Gardens assembled 
in this room know how sincerely many of us are attached to this 
institution. I may, for example, be permitted to say that my 
cwn interest in the Gardens began with ray earliest years. 


The Dublin Zoo 

Almost every animal that has occupied our cages for, shall I 
say, forty years, has been familiar to me. Indeed, since the 
lamented death of that friend of my youth, poor old Jack, 
the pelican, who perambulated these Gardens for nine-and- 
thirty years, I have always considered myself the oldest animal 
in the Society's collection ! 

"I think everyone who has enjoyed the privilege — and it is 
a high privilege, an intellectual privilege — of having served for 
years on our Council, shares our love for the Royal Zoological 
Society of Ireland. Just as the fond mother is pleased and 
gratified when her pet child is noticed, so, your Excellency, 
we, the Council, are pleased and gratified by your presence 
here to-day, and we thank you heartily for it. 

"The Council assemble in these beautiful Gardens every 
Saturday morning, year in and year out. The breakfast party 
which precedes the business of the meeting is a well-known 
institution. But the public do not perhaps so fully understand 
that the breakfast is a fortifying appetiser, prior to serious 
business which has to be most carefully performed. 

"The Council have to conduct the innumerable affairs of 
the Gardens. Questions of finance and administration have to 
be dealt with. The buying and selling of animals is often a 
critical and difficult business. Everyone knows it is a trouble- 
some matter to buy a horse; it can therefore be imagined 
that the purchase of a live crocodile or a ferocious hyena is 
not devoid of anxiety ! When the official business has been 
completed the Council m.akes a careful inspection of the Gardens, 
with the assistance of Mr. Hunt, the superintendent. They 
consider whether the lion cubs are old enough to be sold, and 
how the rats can best be excluded from the aviary. They order 
a new pole for the bear pit, or a new tub for the elephant. They 
hold serious consultations about the health of a zebra bull, 
or the suitable diet for a delicate leopard. They are anxious 
about the expense of hay, or the adequacy of the supply of 
superannuated cab horse. They have to witness Supple's latest 
development in the education of the chimpanzee. They have to 
think whether, after all, it might not be wiser to make a new 
den for the wolves than to repair the old one. They have to 
decide whether they can afford a pair — indeed, I should say 
two new pairs — of boots for the donkey which has to pull the 
lawn mowing-machines ; and they entreat the Treasurer to 
spare fifteen shillings for the monkey which the poor old organ- 
grinder, with tears in his eyes, has brought in the hope of 
selling. Such is the business of a Council meeting. 

"I suppose it generally happens that in a Society of this 
kind there is one dominant and masterful spirit who is the 
mainspring of the whole organisation. For some twenty-seven 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

years this position was filled — and filled most admirably — by 
our old friend the late deeply regretted Rev. Dr. Haughton. 
For that long period, first as Secretary and then as President, 
he was the life and soul of the Society. No doubt he was 
throughout assisted by a succession of zealous and capable 
colleagues who also loved this place. On this memorable 
occasion I cannot forbear from mentioning the names of a 
few of those who have co-operated with Haughton through 
these years, and w^ho, like him, are no longer with us. I 
think first of that old and most valued friend of the Society, 
Maxwell Hutton, and to his name I must also be permitted to 
add that of Valentine Ball. Maxwell Hutton and Valentine 
Ball, in their respective capacities as Treasurer and Secretary, 
rendered inestimable service to the great work inspired by 
Haughton, and in both cases their love of the Gardens was 
inherited from fathers who had in their time also served as 
Treasurer and Secretary. Nor can I omit to mention some 
other losses still more recent. Your predecessor, sir, in the 
presidential chair was Dr. Gordon ; truer friend this Society 
never had. Dr. William Carte, who has so recently passed 
away, was one of the oldest members of our Council. I need 
only now recall how forty-three years ago Dr. Carte presented 
us with a splendid pair of Bactrian camels which he brought 
back from the Crimea, where he had served with so much 
distinction. One more name must be mentioned. It is the 
latest loss to our Council, and the loss has been a great one. 
Long shall we deplore that most lovable of men, Dr. Nedley, 
whose delightful company for many years so largely added 
to the charm of our Saturday meetings. 

"Our special object this afternoon is to inaugurate this new 
and commodious building — this Haughton House — which has 
been erected to the memory of the most remarkable man who 
has ever been associated with these Gardens. Those who have 
been long acquainted with the affairs of the Society will need 
no indication of what Haughton 's work has been. But on 
this historic occasion let me point out some of the leading 
results of that work. 

"I may commence with one of the earliest as well as one 
of the most difficult problems in connection with the Gardens 
which he ever succeeded in solving. This was not, as you 
might perhaps suppose, cutting the claw off a tiger*; it was 
something much more difficult. He obtained no less than 
;^4,ooo from the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the benefit 
of these Gardens ! That took place thirty years ago, in the 
great days of Sir Henry Cole. I do not think we ever appre- 

* See page 294, post. 

The Dublin Zoo 

ciated until quite lately the skill and resource which Dr. 
Haughton displayed in this transaction. Some of us recently 
tried to repeat the process. We endeavoured to obtain some 
further help from the present Chancellor of the Exchequer. 
I cannot trust myself to speak on the subject; it is too painful. 
Suffice it now to say that, if our failure was ignominious, it 
serves at least to enhance the glory of Haughton, who suc- 
ceeded ! 

" That goodly sum of money which the State so kindly gave 
us thirty years ago sufficed, with careful management, for what 
I may describe as the re-endowment of our Gardens. Thus 
was our institution started upon the career of prosperity with 
which the present generation of animal lovers is familiar. 

"The old aquarium — the first establishment of the kind, let 
it be recorded, attempted anywhere — was cleared away, and 
the beautiful new aquarium rose in another part of the Gardens. 
The shabby old monkey-house — there are others here beside 
myself who remember it — was replaced by the present commo- 
dious structure, which has proved so great a success that even 
the delicate chimpanzee finds the climate of the Phoenix Park 
hardly less delightful than that of the forests of tropical Africa. 
The lions almost fancied that they had been restored to the 
freedom of their native v.'ilds in Mashonaland, when they were 
transferred from the narrow dens in which they had been pre- 
viously cooped up, into the spacious apartments of the present 

" Looking from the balcony of this Haughton House we see 
a pleasing prospect around. On all sides we meet evidence 
of the labours of Dr. Haughton. Let me take a conspicuous 
instance. See that beautiful sheet of water opposite to us. 
We generally call it a pond, but we cannot call it less than a 
lake upon so august an occasion as the present. The Royal 
Zoological Society owes that lake to the energy of Dr. 
Haughton. I do not, of course, mean to say that Dr. Haughton 
made the lake ; what he did was to obtain its inclusion within 
our boundaries. 

"In my young days, while this side of the lake belonged, 
as at present, to the Gardens, the other side was part of the 
open park. The lake was, in fact, the boundary between the 
Gardens and the Park. It was a natural boundary, and in 
some respects an efficient fence. But, as we found out to our 
cost, the lake was not an efficient fence in all respects. It had 
some disadvantages. Let me mention one or two. 

" I remember the day when the gardener came to the Council 
with bitter complaints about certain ravages which were made 
in his flower-beds. His seedlings were trampled upon, his 
carnations were devoured. Some unknown nocturnal marauders 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

were the cause of the mischief. The Superintendent, who re- 
sided in the Gardens, had also a report to make. He declared 
that on the night when these atrocities were perpetrated, hideous 
yells and roars from the hyenas and the lions kept him and 
his family from sleep. A watch was then kept, and the myste- 
rious trespassers were discovered. 

"Who would have suspected that those innocent deer in the 
Park were the culprits? It might have been thought that the 
vast pastures of the Park would have sufficed for them. The 
Fifteen Acres, however, they did not consider enough. It is 
ever the same old story — they must have this little Naboth's 
vineyard also. The stags used to swim across the lake at night 
to feast on the carnations. They came close to the lion house, 
close to the dens of the hyenas. The savour of game so succu- 
lent, so near, yet so unattainable, used to set the hyenas and 
lions frantic with excitement. A fence round the other side of 
the lake became necessary for the carnations, and necessary for 
the nerves of the lions. 

"In early days, when one side of the lake was accessible 
from the Park, the scene when the lake was frozen was truly 
remarkable. Dublin poured forth its thousands. The lake 
was covered with sliders and skaters. But even if the lake were 
an admirable fence when it is water, it is certainly no fence 
at all when that water becomes ice. The people walked on to 
the ice from the Park, and they walked off the ice into the Zoo- 
logical Gardens. Never in the whole history of the Society 
had there been such a marvellous number of visitors to the 
Gardens ! The houses were thronged. The monkeys got more 
nuts than was good for them. The bear in the pit got so many 
buns that he thought the millennium had arrived. This won- 
derful development of the taste for zoology among the masses 
of Dublin was intensely gratifying ! 

"There was, however, one person in the Society who failed 
to wax enthusiastic over this remarkable zeal for scientific 
knowledge. That one person was the Treasurer. Under ordi- 
nary circumstances the Treasurer requires that each visitor to 
the Gardens shall enter through a turnstile, depositing as he 
does so a coin which suitably expresses his gratitude for the 
intellectual benefits he is about to receive. But when the lake 
was frozen the turnstile somehow ceased to revolve. It really 
became superfluous. The route into the Gardens via the lake 
was much simpler than the route via the turnstile. The coins, 
of course, could no longer be exacted. 

"The Treasurer expostulated, and threatened resignation. 
He pointed out to the Secretary that, though the Gardens had 
been crammed for a week, there was not a penny in the till. 

"A fence round the lake thus became indispensable, and 


The Dublin Zoo 

Dr. Haughton braced his energies to the problem, and the 
permission to put up the fence was at last gained by his 
determined perseverance. 

"You will, however, please observe that permission to put 
up a fence is not exactly the same thing as the fence itself. 
The fence would have to be paid for by the Society. I must 
tell you how Dr. Haughton managed to pay that bill. 

"Just opposite the carnivore-house, where, in fact, the open- 
air aviary now stands, there once lived — no, I do not mean 
lived, but there once reposed — a magnificent skeleton of the 
Plesiosaurus Cramptoni. The history of the Society's connec- 
tion with this unique and tremendous fossil is somewhat re- 
markable. In the very early days, about the middle of the 
century, a prominent figure on the Council was Sir Philip 
Crampton, the eminent Dublin surgeon. On one occasion a 
grateful patient presented to Sir Philip a gigantic fossil reptile 
which had just been exhumed at Whitby. It was like an over- 
grown crocodile with a neck as long as that of a giraffe. This 
mighty sea monster was a new discovery of the greatest scien- 
tific interest. The finder took the opportunity of associating 
a becoming compliment with his gift. He named this splendid 
inhabitant of ancient ocean after the Dublin surgeon. He 
called it ' Plesiosaurus Cramptoni.' 

"As this animal was about twenty feet long, Lady Crampton 
considered that it would hardly be a becoming decoration for 
her drawing-room in Merrion Square. Accordingly Sir Philip 
presented it to the Zoological Society, of which he was then 
President. There for a quarter of a century this vast fossil 
monster remained. Some people thought that a great fossil was 
rather incongruous in a collection of wild animals. It w^as, how- 
ever, a great attraction to visitors. Dr. Haughton used further 
to add that to the living animals in the collection these grue- 
some bones of the Plesiosaurus provided an edifying lesson on 
the shortness of life and the mutability of all terrestrial affairs. 
" But you will not find the Plesiosaurus here now ! Just as 
the owner of a great ducal house has occasionally been com- 
pelled, owing to pecuniary embarrassments, to part reluctantly 
with a renowned old master, so had the Royal Zoological 
Society reluctantly to part with its unrivalled Plesiosaurus 
to pay for the railings round the lake. For this remarkable 
financial expedient we were again indebted to the fertile brain 
of Dr. Haughton. At the usual meeting one Saturday morn- 
ing, we happened to be in low water — in lower water even 
than usual — for the heavy bill for the fence had only just come 
in. Dr. Haughton was never seen to greater advantage than 
he was on these Saturday mornings. But this morning he ex- 
celled himself. He entered the room in the highest spirits 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

and announced the glad news that 'something had turned up.' 
He had found a purchaser for the Plesiosaurus Cram-ptoni. He 
had persuaded the Science and Art Department to buy this 
unequalled reptile at a handsome price for the National 
Museum. Depression vanished from the breakfast-table; the 
bank was mollified — for a time. Carking care had been dis- 
pelled; the Plesiosaurus Cramptoni had not lived in vain ! 

"From this incident your Excellency may infer that the 
eternal lack of pence which vexes public men has not been 
unknown even to former treasurers of this Society. Haughton's 
splendid enterprises could not be carried through without 
money, and the provision of this money was often a very 
difficult matter. I can assure you that problems connected with 
our financial relations have often given much heart-searchings 
to the Council. But I hasten to add that these are all matters 
of the past — the very remote past. We have only to look 
around at the prosperous condition of these grounds, and our 
well-filled cages, and the affluent state of the Society in general, 
to see how admirably the enterprise of Haughton prospered, 
and how greatly all naturalists are indebted to his courage. 

" I have alluded to those deer which so greatly adorn this 
stately park which surrounds your Excellency's residence. This 
leads me to observe that Dr. Haughton had long been desirous 
of building a suitable house in the Zoological Gardens in which 
to display specimens of the many different varieties of the deer 
tribe. He felt a special interest in these animals. As a 
geologist — as an Irish geologist — he loved to tell of the mighty 
Irish elk, of that magnificent stag, which in prehistoric times 
abounded in this country. Great Britain did not seem to suit 
the constitution of this animal. It was in our beautiful Isle 
of the West, and over the mountains that confront the melan- 
choly ocean, that this colossal deer loved to roam. Dr. 
Haughton delighted to point out the formidable antlers of 
the Irish elk in our National Museum. He used to explain 
why he, as an Irishman, was proud to look upon this ancient 
monarch of the deer tribe. 'How frequently,' he would say, 
'my ancestors must have hunted this noble animal! How 
frequently this noble animal must have hunted my ancestors ! ' 

"The mighty stag has been extinct — extinct from time 
immemorial. But in this country to which it so specially 
belonged, and in these Gardens where we still strive to main- 
tain its degenerate kith and kin, the President and Council 
of the Royal Zoological Society, acting under the inspiration 
of Haughton, resolved to rear a monument to its memory. 
This monument was to take the form of a building which 
should offer a home to such relatives of the Megaceros 
Hibernicus as still survived, either in the Old World or in 


The Dublin Zoo 

the New. Such was the project. It was a project worthy of 
the best traditions of our Society. 

"The site was forthwith chosen, the plans were prepared. 
Everything was ready except one trifle. The Treasurer once 
again made that tiresome remark of which we were all so weary 
— that there was no money ! Here again the acumen of Dr. 
Haughton, by the discovery of an available asset, rendered 
much service to the cause of zoological science. 

"It happened that there had been an institution in Dublin 
which bore the name of the Natural History Society. This 
Society was held in deserved honour, for it had done useful 
work in its time. It had stimulated the study of zoology and 
botany at a time when such stimulus was much needed. We 
who had to conduct the Zoological Gardens had often gazed 
with astonishment on the Natural History Society. Our aston- 
ishment arose from the fact that the Natural History Society 
had not only studied animals, but had saved money ! It had 
accumulated capital, and had actually three hundred pounds 
snugly invested in Consols ! This was prosperity indeed ! But 
somehow the Society declined. It declined until it became 
extinct — as extinct as the great Irish elk itself. The Society 
vanished, but the Consols remained. 

"The three hundred pounds seemed likely to become dere- 
lict. The Commissioners for the reduction of the National Debt 
had their eye upon it. But Dr. Haughton determined that they 
should not have it. He succeeded in persuading the courts that 
the Royal Zoological Society was obviously the legitimate heir 
to the Natural History Society. He promised that the sum 
should be expended upon a particular and patriotic undertaking 
with which the name of the Natural History Society should 
for ever be associated. The result was that the three hundrad 
pounds was placed at our disposal. 

"Having thus obtained three hundred pounds for the pur- 
pose of building the Memorial Stag House, obviously the next 
step was to enter into a contract for building the house at a 
cost of about nine hundred. But, of course, the house had 
to be built. Built it certainly was, and we pulled through 
somehow. If I remember rightly, we happened to have a 
long and severe winter at the time, and we were able to re- 
plenish our coffers by the receipts for the privilege of skating 
on our pond. 

"Thus the stag house, in memory of the great Irish elk, 
often called the ' Herbivore House,' came to 1^ added to the 
Gardens. The next question was how to stock it with animals. 
This also Dr. Haughton managed. He obtained animals on 
loan, animals by deposit, animals by gift, and when all the 
other methods failed, he obtained animals even by purchase ! 
T 289 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

"Everyone knew Dr. Haughton as an eminent man of 
science, as a resolute man of action, and as a brilliant 
humorist. Those who knew him well were aware that there 
was a sentimental side to his nature. An institution like ours 
has a pathetic — a deeply pathetic — side to all who are lovers 
of natural history. The pathos of the Zoological Gardens 
appealed powerfully to Dr. Haughton. Let me illustrate what 
I mean. At the upper end of our Gardens is a tall building 
which has now been assigned to the elephant. That building 
was erected when I was a child; it was erected for the giraffe 
which was presented to us by the Royal Zoological Society 
of London. But there is no giraffe there now ! I greatly 
doubt if that building will ever be tenanted by a giraffe again. 
Close by was a noble circle of elm trees, which now includes 
the llama paddock; but that paddock is quite a recent erection. 
This enclosure used to be the home of that majestic animal the 
great North American bison. Many of us remember the bisons, 
a few of us remember the giraffe. But both their places are 
now vacant ; bisons as well as giraffes are in these Gardens no 

" History tells us, your Excellency, of the thousands of wild 
animals which Titus collected for the games to celebrate the 
inauguration of the awful Colosseum. How easy it must have 
been for the predecessors of Dr. Haughton to keep a zoological 
gardens two thousand years ago ! The earth seems to have 
swarmed with wild beasts then. How else could the Romans 
have brought together for a single triumph in the amphitheatre 
giraffes and zebras, ostriches and wild boars, lions and tigers, 
bears and hyenas, elephants, rhinoceros and hippopotamus in 
numbers so prodigious that, though the figures have been set 
down by Gibbon himself, I have not the courage to mention 
them. I do not want to tantalise our most excellent and ener- 
getic Secretary, Dr. Cunningham. Vast indeed was the popu- 
lation of the earth in wild beasts two thousand years ago. Let 
us see how stands that population now. 

"It is certain that if a Titus had to open a Colosseum in 
these modern days he could no longer collect the five thousand 
wild animals whose slaughter historians declare was required 
to make a Roman holiday. Notwithstanding that we have 
discovered a new world, notwithstanding that the oceans are 
traversed in all directions by our ships, notwithstanding that 
steamers ever increasing in number and power throng every 
port on earth, notwithstanding that innumerable new coun- 
tries are opened up to modern commerce, that products ran- 
sacked ifom every clime are being poured in here for our benefit 
with ever-increasing volume, there is, nevertheless, one descrip- 
tion of import which is not increasing. Nay, rather, it is sadly 


The Dublin Zoo 

declining — alas ! it seems as if we shall soon have to say it is 
approaching evanescence. Titus could bring thousands of wild 
animals to Rome, and yet we cannot get them in hundreds — 
hardly even in tens. In many cases we have to be content 
with units, and some splendid animals, alas ! are no longer 
to be obtained at all. The larger wild animals of this globe are 
rapidly approaching extermination. Everyone knows this in a 
general way, but to us who have been acquainted with the wild 
beast market for forty years, the facts are brought home with 
terrible significance. The thought is inexpressibly sad to all true 
lovers of Nature. There lies the pathos of a zoological garden. 
Here we are permitted to cherish the few survivors of these 
expiring races. In these Gardens around us at this moment 
the closing scenes of the great drama of animal life on our 
earth are being played out. 

"That forsaken bison park is but a symbol — a sad symbol — 
of a tremendous fact in the history of life on this globe. The 
loss is inevitable ; it is certainly irreparable — just think how 
irreparable. Were the National Gallery and its priceless 
contents to be given to the flames, the world would weep for 
its masterpieces, but the first great shock over, mankind might 
draw some consolation from the fact that in the course of 
centuries or thousands of years there might — nay, there would 
— arise another Raphael, another Rubens, another Turner; but 
when the last graceful giraffe has been ruthlessly shot down, 
when the last springbok and the last zebra shall have gone the 
way of so many other lovely forms, there is no hope whatever 
of restoration. Our earth must remain to all eternity poorer 
— infinitely poorer — in objects of the most exquisite beauty and 
interest. Yes, to the lover of Nature, to the lover of the beau- 
tiful, to the Rev. Dr. Haughton there is pathos in a zoological 
garden ! 

"But I am warned that I must qualify what I have said. 
I note a reproving glance from the eye of our present most 
excellent Treasurer, Mr. Hogg. He apparently thinks I am 
entering upon dangerous ground. He is evidently afraid that 
my words may have a repressive, an undesirable influence upon 
those who have entered the room with the excellent resolution 
of becoming life members of the Society. Let me at once 
remove such fears. Remarkable as is the decline in the number 
of wild animals that come to market, there is something more 
remarkable still, and that is the pluck and spirit which the 
Royal Zoological Society of Ireland has acquired from the influ- 
ence of Dr. Haughton. The scarcer the wild animals become, 
the more firm is the Society's resolve that here we shall have 
them. Our cages were never so crammed with interesting 
creatures as they are at this moment, and I know it is the 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

determination of the Council that, so long as this earth contains 
even a single wild beast, they will strive their utmost that the 
home of that wild beast shall be in the Gardens of the Royal 
Zoological Society of Ireland. 

"The extinction of many races of animals may go on, 
but camels and elephants, being more or less domesticated 
animals, we shall still have with us. So long as the lions and 
other animals in our collection continue to carry out the pre- 
cept, ' increase and multiply ' * we may hope to give abundant 
hospitality to the king of beasts, as well as to many of his 
poorer relatives. Monkeys and birds will, for an illimitable 
period, continue to make our Gardens attractive. Dispel your 
fears, Mr. Treasurer ! These Gardens will give to generations 
yet unborn the same instruction and delight which we ourselves 
have been privileged to enjoy ! 

"The name of the present President of this Society is a 
guarantee to the world of the efficiency with which its affairs 
are conducted. Every member of our body felt a thrill of pride 
when Lord Roberts of Kandahar consented to become our 
President. The Society over which you, sir, preside with such 
dignity resolved to mark in the most signal manner their sense 
of the services of Dr. Haughton to these Zoological Gardens 
and to the cause of science. They determined to erect a 
memorial which should bear his name. As soon as the project 
was started, members of all creeds and parties hastened to put 
their names on the subscription list. The Society determined 
that that memorial should be erected in these Gardens which he 
loved so dearly. They determined that the purpose of the 
memorial should be one for which they knew that his sympathies 
would have been enlisted if he were still with us. He loved to 
come to the Gardens himself ; he loved to see others come. Every- 
thing which could operate as an inducement to the residents in 
Dublin and to visitors to our city to pay a visit to these Gardens 
had his cordial encouragement. He consistently maintained 
that the main function of Zoological Gardens was a useful and a 
noble one. It was to afford in the first place to men of science 
an opportunity of studying the natural habits of wild animals. 
For this he incessantly laboured. He was ready to study every 
circumstance of those animals while they lived, and he was 
ready with his scalpel to dissect them when they died. Then, 
too, he felt as the Council have always felt, the inestimable im- 

* The Dublin Zoo has always been famous as a breeding place for lions. In a 
circular letter which was issued by the Secretary in 1900 to draw attention to the 
need for a new lion house, the following statement was made : — During the last fifty 
vears over two hundred lion cubs have been born in the Gardens, and these have realised by 
their sale over £5,000, which sum has been expended on the improvement of the 
grouDds, and on the maintenance of the zoological collection. 


The Dublin Zoo 

portance of this collection as an educational institution. Every 
project in these Gardens was to be subordinated to the main fact 
that the cultivation of science and the advancement of education 
were its primary objects. Even when financial difficulties 
pressed most sorely, and when suggestions were made that the 
resources of the Garden might perhaps be increased by adding 
to its attractions something in the shape of performances, as is 
the custom in gardens elsewhere, ' Not while I am Secretary,' 
was the dignified answer of Haughton. ' If this Garden is to 
descend from its high position as a school of natural history, 
and as a school of comparative anatomy, then I will have 
nothing to say to it.' I need hardly add, your Excellency, that 
in this lofty spirit Dr. Haughton was always supported most 
cordially by the Council, and there is no more thorough up- 
holder of the high aims of the Society than Professor Cunning- 
ham, our present Secretary, whom we all hold in such high 
esteem . 

" I have only to say on behalf of the many subscribers to 
the Haughton memorial, that they rejoice to throw open this 
building to the citizens of Dublin. It is their belief that it will 
add greatly to the attractions of the Gardens. Around the 
building are grouped cages in which some of the smaller and 
more interesting creatures can be displayed to advantage. In 
this spacious apartment, it is hoped that for many a long year 
to come, rest and refreshment will be provided for visitors. 
Let it not be forgotten by any visitor to this House that 
amongst those who have loved this Garden, and given their 
best efforts most freely for its service, one name is henceforth 
to stand in unchallenged pre-eminence — it is the name of 
Samuel Haughton." 

I have reproduced the address practically in the form in 
which it was delivered. To the manuscript copy which I found 
among his papers my father had appended the following 
passage, which he evidently considered was not suitable for 
the occasion : 

"Almost every spot in the Gardens is in some way or other 
associated with Dr. Haughton in the memory of those who 
have been long familiar with our cages and their contents. For 
example, there used to be near the monkey-house a set of dog 
kennels, in which Haughton, always a lover of dogs as of 
other animals, conducted some memorable experiments. He 
at one time conceived the notion — apparently suggested by 
homoeopathic principles — that it would improve the Irish sheep- 
dog if he could blend with the pure-blooded animal some slight 
strain from the Australian dingo. The experiments were highly 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

successful. Some of the remarkable animals thus produced 
were sent to the South of Ireland. The results proved to be 
of the most interesting character. That these dogs had an 
intense affection for the sheep entrusted to their charge, was 
never for a moment in doubt. Indeed, their ardour was so 
forcibly manifested that it was generally believed in the country 
that the ferocious wolves of antiquity had suddenly been re- 
stored to the plains over which they had once roamed. The 
Society experienced no further demand for their improved type 
of sheep-dog ! " 

In the above address Sir Robert bore testimony to the ad- 
mirable services which Dr. Haughton had rendered to the 
Zoological Gardens. It is manifest that his brilliant conversa- 
tion did much to enhance the pleasure of those who attended 
the Saturday morning breakfasts. My father had noted down 
some recollections of the famous Doctor : 

Various anecdotes concerning Dr. Haughton come into 
my mind. He was a man of great versatility. He was not 
only a Doctor of Laws and a Doctor of Divinity, but a Doctor 
of Medicine, too. As a medical man, however, his activities 
were not confined to ministering to his fellow-mortals. On 
one occasion when a tiger at the Zoo was indisposed Haughton 
volunteered to act as veterinary surgeon. The great beast — 
it was one of the largest in the Gardens — was suffering agony 
from an ingrowing claw. Dr. Haughton decided that the claw 
must be removed. He immediately set to work to devise a 
tackle by which the tiger could be kept quiet. Various keepers 
were summoned to hold ropes which by some means or other 
were attached to various parts of the tiger's anatomy. It was 
the duty of the head-keeper to draw the limb upon which the 
operation was to be performed, towards the door of the cage, 
at which Dr. Haughton, armed with a formidable pincers, stood 
in readiness. The door of the cage having been slightly raised, 
the pincers were applied, when the animal sprang at Haughton 
with a roar which could be heard all over the Gardens — if not 
the Phoenix Park. None of the keepers had ever heard a tiger 
roar in earnest before, and the result was they all fairly let 
go their hold of the rope and bolted from the building. Fortu- 
nately, the door of the cage fell down when the tiger sprang, 
and the man with the pincers came to no harm. Nor was he 
in any way daunted by the incident. Walking slowly to the 
end of the lion house, he summoned the frightened keepers. 


The Dublin Zoo 

Having enticed them into the building, he locked both doors, 
and said he would not open them until the operation was per- 
formed. A second attempt was successful; and Haughton 
averred that the tiger whose pain he had eased always knew 
and loved him thenceforward ! 

Dr. Haughton 's ministrations to a sick lion were recorded 
in verse by my old friend and kinsman, His Honour Judge 
Sir Thomas Snagge. It was written in 1864 : 

" Elegy ox the Death of the Lion in the Dublin Zoological 

Gardens " 

{Vide OflScial Report of Superintendent, Saunders' Newsletter, 
February i8th, 1864) 

" Alas ! Another heavy blow 
Has added to the weight of woe 
Already pressing on the Zo- 

-ological Society, 

-ological Society. 


'Tis only one short week ago 
(A fever 'twas that laid him low) 
Death took the Lion of the Zo- 

-ological Society, 

-ok^ical Society. 

The keeper found him very low, 
And sent a messenger for Pro 
-fessor Haughton of the Zo- 

-ological Society, 

-ological Society. 


The Doctor came with Foot not slow; 
He found his patient but so-so, 
And told the Council of the Zo- 

-ological Society, 

-ological Society. 


He wrote a grand prescription, though, 
' R. Kinahan's Spir: oz. duo 
Aqtue oz. sex. sumat leo.' — 
S. H., Physician to the Zo- 

-ological Society, 

-ological Society. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 


They tried to make him drink, but no 
Tee-^totaller was ever so 
Staunch as the Lion of the Zo- 

-ological Society, 

-ological Society. 


In vain they sought to urge the no- 
-ble beast. That ' tumbler ' was no ' go.' 
He thought that whiskey-punch was ' low ' 
For him, the Lion of the Zo- 

-ological Society, 

-olc^ical Society. 


They watched his every dying throe; 
They rubbed him down from top to toe. 
So died the Lion of the Zo- 

-ological Society, 

-ological Society. 


Some said it was the frost and snow; 
Others declared they didn't know; 
But all agreed that, high or low, 
Than this there ne'er was finer show — 
This feast of reason and this flow 
Of whiskey-punch so promptly pro- 
-vided by order of the Zo- 

-ological Society, 

-ological Society." 

Among the stories with which Dr. Haughton used to 
enliven the Saturday morning breakfasts, I now set down one 
which, told as it was in his inimitable style, afforded us no 
little entertainment. It appears that the Prince of Mantua and 
Montferrat * had kept up a custom which had been instituted 
by his ancestors many centuries ago of awarding gold medals 
to men of exceptional eminence in science, literature, or 

It was even said that Christopher Columbus had been a 
recipient of this distinction ; but I think we may brush aside 

* For an account of this extraordinary man the reader is referred to an article 
entitled "A London Munchausen," by C. C. Osborne, in the Cornhill Magazine for 
September, 191 2. His name and rank as officially registered were Charles de 
Bourbon d'Este Paleologues Gonzaga, Prince of Mantua and Montferrat. He died 
at the age of 54, on January 17th, 1894. 


The Dublin Zoo 

the statement that Julius Caesar and Charlemagne and 
Copernicus had also been gold medallists ! In pious fulfilment 
of this splendid tradition of his illustrious house, the Prince 
searched the world for persons of the eminence suitable to 
receive the award of his gold medal. In the course of his 
survey he at length reached Ireland, and finding that no son 
of Erin had hitherto been made a gold medallist, he deter- 
mined that he would award the distinction to two great Irish- 
men of the period. 

He consulted Trinity College and the Royal Irish 
Academy. The authorities of the former, with the complete 
approval of the University, selected Dr. Haughton. The Royal 
Irish Academy not unnaturally nominated its President for the 
time being. This was Sir Samuel Ferguson, one of the most 
distinguished literary men in Ireland. Sir Samuel became 
first known to wide fame as the author of "Father Tom and 
the Pope" (Blackwood's Magazine, May, 1831). Perhaps the 
poem by which he is most widely known is "The Forging of 
the Anchor." The work of his life largely lay in the direction 
of antiquarian investigation and the study of Irish literature. 
He had also been associated with Bishop Graves in his valuable 
investigation as to the origin of Ogham Stones. 

It thus came about that the two Irish savants who were 
destined for the honour contemplated by the Prince of Mantua 
were the Rev. Samuel Haughton and Sir Samuel Ferguson. 

In due time the medals arrived in Dublin by special mes- 
senger, and were afterwards solemnly awarded to the distin- 
guished men destined to receive them. The spirit in which 
the medals were received by the two recipients deserves careful 
analysis. Sir S. Ferguson, notwithstanding that he had re- 
ceived the blue ribbon of recognition for his literary work by 
election to the presidency of the Academy, was modestly 
pleased. The award was doubly welcome, coming aS it did 
not only from the home of learning, but from Italv, with 
which country one of his earliest literary achievements had 
been associated. He therefore received the medal with the 
keenest appreciation, and gladly accepted the congratulations 
of his many friends, the more intimate of whom were privi- 
leged to see the famous gold medal. But these were not 
the methods of Dr. Haughton ! Usually when a man receives 
a gold medal he deposits the prized article in his safe or lodges 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

it in his bank. But I venture to say that the procedure adopted 
by Dr. Haughton was unparalleled in the history of similar 
awards. When the medal was placed in his hands he neither 
opened his safe nor did he go to his banker. He carried the 
gold medal off to the chemical laboratory, and there he tested 
its specific gravity, with a very disconcerting result. The gold 
was not gold at all ! 

At this stage he reported the circumstances to us at the 
Saturday breakfast. As friends both of Ferguson and 
Haughton, we all besought him not to undeceive his co- 
recipient. We all knew how delighted Ferguson had been, 
and how keen would be his mortification when he found that 
his new decoration was made of base metal. 

Dr. Haughton was an eminently kind-hearted man. I 
remember on one occasion when a well-known Dublin citizen 
had been bitten by a monkey in the monkey-house, with which 
he was incautiously playing, Dr. Haughton drove out to the 
Gardens the day after to inquire for the rmonkeyl So we had 
hopes that Ferguson would have been spared the disclosure 
of the laboratory. But we were unfortunately too late. Fergu- 
son had already learned the specific gravity of the alleged 
gold medal, for Haughton said that, as his co-medallist was an 
old and valued friend of his, he could not allow him to be 
imposed upon ; and so, actuated by the highest sense of moral 
duty, Haughton had disclosed the distressing facts. Ferguson 
accordingly wrote a letter to the Prince of Mantua to the effect 
that it was the good intention of the Prince which he so highly 
appreciated, and not the intrinsic value of the medal, and that he 
felt quite sure that His Highness intended to send a genuine 
gold medal, but that some of those who were employed to carry 
out his wishes had not faithfully discharged the duty entrusted 
to them, and that if His Highness could assure him that his 
intention was to give a genuine gold medal, he (Ferguson) 
would prize this medal just as much as if the laboratory test 
had been in all respects favourable. Whereas, if His Highness 
could not give this assurance, he would have to take the painful 
step of returning the medal. No reply was received, and Sir 
Samuel's medal was duly returned. 

In his young days Dr. Haughton, in partnership with his 
intimate friend, the Rev. Joseph Galbraith, established a class 
to prepare young university men for entrance into the army 


The Dublin Zoo 

through Woolwich. The Woolwich class was very success- 
ful, and the heads of the University gave it every encourage- 
ment. Dr. Haughton was an excellent "grinder," or, to use 
the English equivalent of the word, "coach." He used in later 
years, especially at the Zoo breakfasts, to boast of the successes 
he achieved in the Woolwich classes; and he used to expound 
the principles on which successful coaching was based. In 
illustration of this he told us how, just after a list of Woolwich 
successes had been published, he met the Provost — I think it 
was Dr. MacDonnell — who congratulated him on having 
secured the first two places in the list for Dublin men. But 
the reverend professor disclaimed the praise of which the 
Provost was inclined to be so lavish. "No! No!" said he. 
"We deserve no credit for having passed the first two men. 
They were clever fellows. It was their own brains and industry 
that secured their success. Their teachers deserve none of 
the credit. But look, Mr. Provost, at the last two men on the 
list, and then you will understand what consummate grinding 
means ! They were stupid fellows, who ought never to have 
got in ; but Galbraith and I set ourselves the problem of ' load- 
ing up ' those two men with information so adroitly chosen 
and so skilfully implanted as to bid defiance to the most astute 
of examiners. We have succeeded, as you see ; and that, Mr. 
Provost, is what we mean by true ' grinding ' ! Any credit to 
which the grinders are entitled on this occasion is to be solely 
associated with the two last names on the list." In later years 
Dr. Haughton described the subsequent career of the four 
candidates. The two clever men who headed the list romped 
through the Academy into the Royal Engineers. The other 
two, after repeated attempts, were unsuccessful, and, to use 
Dr. Haughton's own expression, they swam round and round 
Woolwich like goldfish in a bowl. This simile was obviously 
suggested by the aquarium in the Zoological Gardens ! At 
last, in despair, the Woolwich authorities wrote to Dr. 
Haughton to complain of the hopelessness of the situation, and 
to suggest that as it was he who ground them into Woolwich — 
a fact of which he made no secret whatever — he should come 
over and "grind " them out ! It is hardly necessary to say that 
this solution was impossible. By strenuous exertion one of 
them was forced through the examinations and obtained his 
commission, while the other had to withdraw from the Academy. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

According to Dr. Haughton he entered the profession which 
he himself so greatly adorned, and ultimately became a rural 
dean ! 

I have alluded in the last few words in the preceding 
anecdote to the fact that Dr. Haughton was a divine. I never 
had the good fortune to hear one of his pulpit deliverances. 
They were very infrequent. In the course of a famous sermon 
which he preached in the University Church at Cambridge he 
said, quoting a French writer, that the whole history of life 
on this earth might be summed up in the conjugation of two 
tenses of a certain verb — one in the active and one in the 
passive : 

I eat, thou eatest, he eats. 

We eat, you eat, they eat. 

With the terrible converse of : 

I am eaten, thou art eaten, he is eaten. 
We are eaten, you are eaten, they are eaten. 

This I have taken from the account printed in Cambridge 
of this remarkable discourse. 

But perhaps the most characteristic of his pulpit utter- 
ances was a charity sermon which he preached in aid of Sir 
Patrick Dun's Hospital in Dublin. It is necessary to explain 
that the scientific world of Dublin was at that time arrayed in 
two hostile camps over a point of interest to geologists. The 
question was whether the stone found in the great quarry at 
Finglas, near Dublin, was or was not that particular limestone 
which is called Calp limestone. Some said it was; others said 
it was not. In this, as in any other geological question. Dr. 
Haughton, who was Professor of Geology in the University, 
naturally took a keen interest. When he stood up to preach 
the sermon he saw in the congregation the late Sir Richard 
Griffith, who is probably best known to the public by his survey 
of Ireland which led to "Griffith's Valuation." He was also 
a diligent geologist, and, as it happened, one of the leading 
protagonists in the Calp view of the Finglas quarries. 

With a view to the offertory, Dr. Haughton proceeded, 
to use his own expression, "to throw a fly " over Sir R. Griffith. 
He introduced a little story. He described how a quarryman 
had recently been brought into the hospital, having sustained a 
terrible injury to his head by a fall to the floor of the quarry. 


The Dublin Zoo 

"What," said the preacher, "caused this fractured skull? 
It was, of course, his fall on the stone at the bottom. But 
what was the stone? Was it ordinary limestone? No, my 
friends, it was Oalp limestone! " When the collection came to 
be examined, the sidesman noticed a phenomenon not at all 
usual in ordinary charity collections. This was a crisp five- 
pound note in the plate. The explanation of its presence was 
given to Dr. Haughton by a gentleman who was in the pew 
with Sir R. Griffith. It appears that Sir Richard, in the first 
instance, had provided himself with a coin of small denomina- 
tion, but that when the geologist heard the preacher aver that 
the f)oor quarryman had been smashed up by Oalp limestone 
he took out his pocket-book, and from this well-lined receptacle 
he extracted a "fiver," putting it into the plate with the ex- 
planatory remark to his friend, "That it was as gratifying as 
it was unusual to find scientific accuracy in the pulpit ! " 
« « » « * 

The death of Dr. Haughton came as a severe blow. My 
father wrote to a friend on November 7th, 1897 • 

"Alas! poor Haughton! My thoughts have been much with 
him the past week. I do hope that someone will do him justice 
in an obituary. The notices I have seen in the papers appear to 
me wholly unworthy and inadequate. For there was a grand note 
about the man, independently of his genius, which was great, 
and his wit, by which he was best known. The real note of the 
man was unselfiskness. He struggled hard for his ends, and 
his ends were always to promote some cause which was worthy, or 
which, at all events, he thought to be worthy, and he never did a 
selfish thing or had a selfish thought in all his endeavours. He 
had a touch of sentiment, too, and exquisite sympathy with 
suffering of every kind." 



IN July, 1890, Sir Robert Ball visited Norway under the aus- 
pices of the Vesey Club, of Birmingham, of which he w^as 
then President. My mother and my eldest sister (now Mrs. 
Meakin) accompanied him on this occasion. The two Vice- 
Presidents of the club, Professor C. Lapworth, LL.D., F.R.S., 
F.G.S., and Sir Benjamin Stone, F.L.S., F.G.S., were also 
of the party. He often spoke of the pleasurable experiences 
of this expedition, which was rendered particularly attractive 
by the presence of Mr. Lapworth, whom he always regarded 
as a prince among geologists. The following letter from Mr. 
Lapworth (September 28th, 1901) gives some indication of 
the kind of discussion in which the geologist and the 
astronomer were wont to take part : 

"I am now back from wandering over the land and among old 
friends, from Cape Wrath almost to Birmingham. Your letter 
has followed me faithfully here. 

" The description of the conglomerates of Norway which you 
give in the proofs enclosed is quite correct. But what is new 
to me is the occurrence of such conglomerates in the Romsdal. I 
know them well in the Kongevold-Doorefield ground. They also 
occur in the Bergen Waston country and elsewhere. But the 
two main points dwelt upon in your proof, namely, their occur- 
rence in the Romsdal and their employment as roofing slates in 
Vossevangen, are both novel to me. At all events, I do not 
recall these two things, and I thought that I had a very tough 
memory as regards rocks and their places. 

" In the Romsdal region there are magnificent augen gneisses 
and the like, which have all the outward aspect of pressed con- 
glomerates, but they are quite distinct from conglomerates as re- 
gards origin. The conglomerates are sedimentary ; these augen 
gneisses are igneous: the former superficial stuff (sub-aerial) sent 
down into earth crust from above and squashed ; the latter infra- 
crustal subterranean stuff risen up from below into the earth crust 
and deformed there. The lenticular form of the lenticles in both 


Visits to Norway 

is due to pressure and forced flowage ; but the direction of meta- 
morphism — in the one — is, so to speak, diametrically opposite to 
that in the other. The crushed conglomerates are blocks assorted 
by the mechanical action of water lying in a paste of similar 
material more mechanically disintegrated and worn by water 
action. All is deposited material. The lenticular forms are 
subsequent deformed shapes due to pressure. The aiigen gneisses 
on the other hand are due to subterranean struggles, when the 
consolidating or melting (or potentially melting) material is 
undergoing excessive strain — mighty pressure — and perhaps solid 
flowage. The ' eyes ' are not pebbles (and are therefore not older, 
so to speak, than the rest of the rock). They are, it is true, of 
the same lenticular shape as the squashed pebbles — because the 
surfaces are the same under the same condition of depth and 
pressure, and probably could not be otherwise. 

" But the conglomerates are formed of pebbles set in a paste 
of smaller pebbles down to microscopic or dust-like pebbles, and 
are relics of the stuff of which all the rock and rock paste is 
made up. The augen are usually the acidic segregation from 
the enveloping rich paste and derived at its expense. 

" The two things are so similar that they are repeatedly mis- 
taken for each other, and are sometimes impossible to distin- 
guish. But they are homomor-phous and not homo genetic . 

"Please remember that I do not deny for one moment that 
crushed conglomerates and slate conglomerates may occur both 
VA the Romsdal and the Vossevangen country. Indeed, they are 
exceedingly likely to occur on the Vossevangen ground. But I 
have no recollection of seeing any in Romsdal. They are abun- 
dant in other regions, however, and your description of them is 
perfectly correct. The Romsdal rock I remember were augen 
gneisses and the like, and it would never do to claim these as 
conglomerates, from which they must be most carefully kept 

" I may, of course, be wrong ; but in these days of dynamic 
metamorphism there is need for extreme caution, and it is best to 
make no reference to these two localities but to speak in generali- 
ties alone. 

" I have cut the unsafe bits out of the proof. The rest is all 

" Very many thanks for all the good things you say anent the 
Monday trip. Your partnership with myself on the journey from 
Trondhjem to Odde gave me, as you know, the keenest pleasure 
at the time, and I look back to it as one of the most delightful 
times I had in my life." 

In 1896 he paid another visit to Norway. It was known 
that in August of that year the sun would be totally eclipsed, 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

but the only place within comparatively easy reach of England 
at which the phenomenon could be observed, was in the north 
of Norway. An official party of observers, arranged by a joint 
committee of the Royal Society and of the Astronomical 
Society, sailed on the s.s. Norse King to observe this interest- 
ing event. My father, accompanied by his brother, now Sir 
Charles Ball, Bart., and other members of his family, including 
myself, gladly took the opportunity of seeing what he so 
often described on the public platform as a spectacle of surpass- 
ing beauty. So far as the main object of the expedition was 
concerned, it ended in failure, but the occasion was nevertheless 
full of interest to the Lowndean Professor, as will be gathered 
from his own account of it * : 

"We sailed from Tilbury on the afternoon of July 25th on 
the Norse King, a steamer of 3,000 tons. The arrangements 
for the trip were made by Messrs. Gaze, and there were 
164 passengers on board. 

"Chief among the party were the President of the Royal 
Astronomical Society, Dr. A. A. Common, F.R.S., who was 
at the head of that branch of the Government Eclipse Expe- 
dition which established itself on the north side of the Varanger 
Fjord, and Professor J. N. Lockyer, F.R.S., on board H.M.S. 
Volage, with the other branch of the Government expedition, 
who had secured a station on the opposite side of the fjord. 

"The staff under Dr. Common's command consisted of 
Major Macmahon, R.A., Mr. A. R. Hinks, Mr. W. H. 
Wesley, Mr. J. Jepson Atkinson, Mr. T. A. Common, Pro- 
fessor K. D. Naegamvala, and Miss Klumpke. Dr. Common 
also had the energetic aid of his skilful mechanical assistant, 
Mr. A. J. Wooldridge. Many volunteers among the pas- 
sengers gladly rendered them occasional help. 

"In addition to what may be described as the official branch 
of eclipse observers there was a large number of astronomers 
on the Norse King, among the party organised by Mr. E. W. 
Maunder, then President of the British Astronomical Associa- 
tion, and Dr. Downing, the superintendent of the Nautical 
Almanack. The energetic observers of this party brought with 
them over thirty instruments of different types, in the hope 
of effecting a solution of the various problems which a total 

* This was published in the Times, August 19th, 1896, and is here reproduced 
by kind permission. 


Visits to Norway 

eclipse presents. Among the other astronomers on board may 
be mentioned Dr. Isaac Roberts, F.R.S., the distinguished 
photographer of celestial objects. Many ladies interested in 
science were also to be found in the party. 

"Our passage across the North Sea was not accomplished 
without bodily discomfort for many passengers, including not 
a few of the astronomers. The welcome shelter of the fjords 
was, however, duly reached, and then the rest of the voyage 
to Vadso was delightful. Outlying islands generally bounded 
channels of smooth water. Through these we glided under 
skilful pilotage, fully enjoying the magnificent scenery. With 
only brief delays, the ship moved rapidly northwards, and 
even when we had to traverse occasional intervals of open sea, 
we were fortunate enough to find gracious weather awaiting us. 

"The voyage to the North Cape is so well known that 
there is little to be said on the matter. The gradual lengthen- 
ing of the day and the gradual vanishing of the night is always 
an interesting experience. The changes in the character of the 
scenery as the Arctic Circle was reached and passed were speci- 
ally noticed. Though the spectacle of mighty snowfields, of 
glaciers which creep down towards the sea-level, and of vast tracts 
of bare and barren rocks testified to the inhospitable latitudes we 
had reached, yet occasionally I was astonished to find scenes 
widely different from those which we usually associate with 
the Arctic regions. We anchored for some time at Karstad, 
in the Lofoden Islands. Ample provision of carioles being 
forthcoming, a party of about sixty enjoyed one of the loveliest 
possible drives. The road at first wound along the deeply 
indented coast, disclosing magnificent views at every turn, and 
after a journey of about seven miles we reached the valley 
which contained the Lapp settlement, a visit to which was the 
ostensible object of the expedition. I am afraid that the Lapp 
settlement would have been found disappointing if any of us 
had come there with the expectation of being able to study 
primitive man under distinctly aboriginal conditions. Within 
a small enclosure, for admission to which a smart gate-money 
was exacted, were a couple of tents and a dozen Lapp men, 
women, and children. These people were dressed in their 
best, and were doing a brisk business in vending preposterous 
knives with reindeer antlers for handles, and many other objects 
of reputed Lapp manufacture. Their words of English and 
" 305 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

their shrewd dealings made it impossible to regard them as 
specimens of unsophisticated man, even though a number 
of reindeer, looking shy and uncomfortable, were huddled 
together in one corner to produce some resemblance of reality. 
A Lapp baby sleeping comfortably in its mummy-like wrapping 
and an old man crouching in a tent seemed the most genuine 
specimens of humanity in the show. 

"But whatever we may have thought of the value of the 
Lapp settlement from an anthropological point of view, we 
were enchanted by the extraordinary beauty of the valley where 
the encampment lay. On all sides verdure and luxuriant vege- 
tation were the predominant features. It suggested rather the 
richest parts of Kerry or Devonshire than regions within the 
Arctic Circle. 

"It was midnight on Sunday, August 2nd, when we 
anchored at Vadso, in north-eastern Norway, at the latitude of 
70°. Though we had actually passed by a day or two the 
possible time for seeing the midnight sun, yet night, in our 
ordinary sense of the word, had no existence, and all were on 
deck to obtain a survey of the place where we were to dwell 
for a week, and whence the great event was to be observed. 
The little town was prettily situated on the north side of 
the Varanger Fjord. There are no mountains in the neigh- 
bourhood, but the land slopes gently to the north, behind the 
town, to an altitude of a few hundred feet. In front of Vadso 
is an island, and the sound between it and the mainland forms 
a harbour with ample accommodation for the Russian ships of 
small tonnage which frequent it ; the anchorage for large vessels 
lies to the west of the island. 

"The screw of the Norse King had scarcely ceased to re- 
volve before some enterprising members of the party, midnight 
though it was, hailed a boat, landed on the island, and forth- 
with selected a capital site on the south side, overlooking the 
fjord, where ample room could be found for the thirty different 
observing stations belonging to various members of the British 
Astronomical Association. 

"On the following morning, Monday, August 3rd, I ac- 
companied Dr. Common when making a call on Governor 
Prebenson, the important official whose rule extends over the 
whole of Finmarken. He received us on this, as on subsequent 
occasions, with the utmost kindness and hospitality. He 


Visits to Norway 

promised every assistance in his power, and gave Dr. Common 
the liberty to choose any site he pleased on the hill at the back 
of the town. Provided with this authority, we w^alked up the 
hill at the back of Vadso for a couple of miles to visit the 
stations which had already been selected and occupied by Dr. 
Copeland, the Astronomer Royal of Scotland, and Dr. Hassel- 
berg, the Swedish astronomer. Though the day was fine, the 
accounts which w-e received of the previous weather at Vadso 
were far from encouraging, for the preceding days had been 
extremely wet. 

"As the result of this survey Dr. Common decided to place 
the station of the Government eclipse party at a point about 
a mile from Vadso. Its position adjoined a toboggan slide 
which is provided for the winter amusement of the young people 
of Vadso. The next step was to land the instruments and to 
have them conveyed from the pier to the chosen station. The 
carts which the town possessed seemed to have been previously 
engaged by the contractor for the new Vadso waterworks. 
How^ever, much energy was shown by the Government party, 
and certain carts were somehow obtained, so that by the even- 
ing all the cases had been safely conveyed to the station on 
the hillside. The portable huts were soon erected, and all 
was in readiness for commencing the laborious task of pre- 
paring the observatory for its duties on the 9th. 

"Then followed five days of tremendously hard work by 
Dr. Common and his zealous band of assistants in the erection 
and adjustment of his instruments. The equipment he em- 
ployed on this occasion was of special interest, inasmuch as 
it was the first time on which a certain important type of 
apparatus had been arranged for eclipse observation. The 
light from the sun was to be received on a mirror called the 
ccelostat. This mirror rotates about an axis in its plane and 
parallel to the earth's axis. If the mirror be made to rotate 
by clockwork, so that its rate is exactly half the rate at which 
the earth rotates on its axis, the light from the sun would 
be always reflected in the same direction, notwithstanding the 
motion of the sun. Two splendid flat mirrors, each sixteen 
inches in diameter, fashioned by Dr. Common himself with rare 
skill, were employed for this purpose. The telescopes and other 
instruments with which the observations were to be made, were 
mounted upon solid supports, heavily weighted with great 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

stones, in the collection and disposal of which Dr. Common 
obtained much assistance from the capable bluejackets who had 
been kindly placed at his disposal by Commodore Atkinson, 
R.N., in charge of the Training Squadron. Dr. Common him- 
self, assisted by his son, Mr. Hinks and Mr. Wooldridge, 
proposed to photograph the corona and its spectrum. Miss 
Klumpke, belonging to his party, was charged with the time 
observations, while I had erected within Dr. Common's en- 
closure a small equatorial with which to make eye observations 
of a total eclipse, a phenomenon which, like most members of 
the party, I had never before had the opportunity of witnessing. 

"During the days of our sojourn at Vadso I visited the 
other stations, where preparations for the great event were in 
progress. The largest apparatus was that of Dr. Copeland, 
who had directed a forty-foot tube to that point of the sky where 
the eclipsed sun was to be. At the upper end of the tube was 
a six-inch object glass, and it was designed to take photo- 
graphs of the corona on plates eighteen inches square. 

"I was glad to accept an invitation to lunch from Captain 
King Hall, R.N., commanding H.M.S. Volage, of the Train- 
ing Squadron. His ship was anchored at Brashaven, or 
Brassund, a beautiful spot on the opposite side of the Varanger 
Fjord, about fifteen miles south from Vadso. The position 
was chosen so as to afford Sir Norman Lockyer a convenient 
base for his operations. After lunch we went in the ship's 
launch to an island a mile and a half distant, which had been 
chosen as the site of the observing station. We found every- 
thing there in readiness for the eclipse, and the professor was 
kind enough to rehearse in our presence the admirable drill 
which he had prepared for his staff. The sight was indeed a 
remarkable one. On this little island, in a romantic situation 
of wildness and grandeur, he had made elaborate arrange- 
ments for the orderly observation of the eclipse. Assisted 
primarily by his son and by Mr. Fowler, he seemed to have 
practically at his disposal the entire ship's company of the 
Volage, Much enthusiasm for the work animated the officers 
and crew alike, and a staff of seventy persons, the captain 
himself included, had been chosen, who were regularly 
organised to take their parts in observing the various pheno- 
mena. The work was divided into sixteen or seventeen 
different departments, each under the charge of a responsible 


Visits to Norway 

officer. The drill was designed so as to utilise to the utmost 
the limited period of io6 seconds during which the phase of 
totality lasted. Mr. Fowler had charge of the prismatic 
camera, with which notable results had been achieved in the 
eclipse of 1893. I" this instrument a large prism is placed in 
front of the object glass. Each of the lines in the spectrum of 
the chromosphere produces a ringed image of the sun, and 
these rings are sufficiently clear to be separately distin- 
guished. The drill in the use of this instrument was so com- 
plete that when Mr. Fowler had one attendant to hand him the 
plates and another to receive them, a bluejacket at the upper 
end to give the exposure, and a midshipman to act as time- 
keeper, it was possible for him to make no fewer than fifty 
exposures during the interval of totality. One of these occupied 
thirty seconds, another twenty, and another twelve, and the 
remainder were snapshots, as the whole had to be concluded 
within 106 seconds. The station of Captain King Hall was at 
one of the occulting discs. This was a dark circular piece of 
wood at the top of a high pole, so placed that it just cut off 
the more brilliant part of the corona. The observer, after 
totality had begun, was to be led blindfold to a chair, and then, 
the bandage being removed, he, with his eyes in the most 
sensitive state, was to draw the outlying branches of the corona. 

"Another department organised by the energetic professor 
was constituted of a corps of draughtsmen. He selected the 
suitable men by a previous test of a very appropriate nature. 
The ship's company were brought in batches of twenty at a 
time into a darkened room, and were there asked to sketch a 
picture of the corona, which was presented on a screen by 
a lantern, the time allowed for the drawing being 106 seconds. 
In this way a band of about thirty had been obtained, each 
of whom had given satisfactory evidence of his capacity to 
make a faithful picture of what he might see during the brief 
interval of totality. 

"A sad incident which occurred during our stay at Vadso 
was deeply felt by many of the party on the Norse King. I 
allude to the death of Mr. Edward Howard, midshipman on 
H.M.S. Active, who was killed by a fall from the mast. His 
funeral in that remote region was attended by many of the 
passengers on the Norse King, including myself. The cere- 
mony was an affecting one. Some kindly hands had strewn 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

the route from the pier to the little cemetery with heather. 
Many who were quite strangers to him were nevertheless much 
touched by the impressive scene. They knew it was the funeral 
of a gallant young Englishman who had perished in the dis- 
charge of his duty. He was being laid to his rest in an Arctic 
grave, surrounded not only by his sorrowing comrades, but by 
many other sympathetic English men and women. The in- 
habitants of all classes of the little town, and many Lapps in 
their quaint costumes, were present in respectful silence and 

"As the great day approached, the harbour at Vadso pre- 
sented a very lively appearance. One vessel after another 
dropped her anchor. We had, in the first place, the three ships 
of the Training Squadron — H.M.S. Active, H.M.S. Champion, 
H.M.S. Calypso ; the Konge Harald was there with passengers 
who had come specially for the eclipse; the St. Rognald was 
similarly freighted; and there was the yacht Myra with a dis- 
tinguished party on board. Both Swedish and Norwegian 
men-of-war had been sent to the station, and there were several 
foreign tourist ships. There were the Neptune and the Thor, 
containing many sightseers, and another vessel which had just 
returned from a trip with a large party from a region hitherto 
regarded as inaccessible by tourists — the ice sheet in the latitude 
of 8i° 35'. There were trading steamers, and there was a 
whaler, with its crow's nest and its swivel gun. When all these 
were added to the normal shipping of Vadso Harbour, which 
consisted of small Russian vessels which had come with flour 
and wood to barter for dried cod, it will be admitted that the 
total eclipse was, so far as Vadso is concerned, a social no less 
than an astronomical event. The weather during the week 
had not been such as to give us much encouragement. Some 
days had been fine, some had not, and I rather think the latter 
were in the majority. However, we hoped for the best, and after 
no little labour on the part of the astronomers all was made 
ready by Saturday evening. But I do not think there was much 
sleep for anyone that night, we were too full of expectation ; 
and those who had any duties of observation to perform had to 
leave the ship at 2 a.m. so as to be at their posts well before 
the phenomena commenced at four. 

"Our first glance as we came up was, of course, at the sky. 
The decks were still wet with the heavy rain which had fallen 


Visits to Norway 

during the night, and the clouds were still threatening. There 
were, however, some breaks which gave us hope. I went up 
through the town, and found all the inhabitants astir. A stream 
of them were wending their way up the road to the hill where 
the observatory was placed. Indeed, I think that almost all 
the adult population must have turned out for the purpose. 
This will seem somewhat less surprising if it be borne in mind 
that we were in a part of the world w^here the day and night 
are curiously mixed, and where, in fact, the seconds of the total 
eclipse expressed the duration of the only darkness which had 
been experienced during the summer. Among the spectators 
were many Lapps, whose extraordinary costumes claim atten- 
tion the moment the stranger sets foot in Vadso. This 
astronomically minded race stood in circles round each of the 
encampments, gazing with more curiosity, perhaps, on the 
strange people who had come so far to see so little, than on 
the sight in the heavens. They were, however, then, as on all 
other occasions, respectful and well-behaved, and needed but 
little of the surveillance of the bluejackets at the disposal of 
Dr. Common. 

"The instruments were duly opened; for it was decided that 
no matter what happened the contemplated programme should 
be faithfully carried out. I was stationed at a small equatorial 
telescope of three-inch aperture. It was with some hope that we 
saw a partial clearance of the sky, and the sun peeped forth. 
But I failed to see the first encroachment of the moon on the 
sun's limb. A cloud prevented that, though almost immediately 
afterwards I could see the advance of the moon, and thus learn 
that the eclipse had actually commenced. For an hour we had 
one glimpse after another of the resistless march with which 
the dark moon entered straight on the brilliant disc. Beautiful, 
indeed, were the cusps of light as they grew steadily narrower. 
For a long time there was but little appreciable effect on the 
general illumination of the earth. It was not until about four- 
fifths of the sun's disc were obscured that I became conscious 
of the increasing gloom, and felt as if some tremendous 
thunderstorm were approaching. Gradually the interest and 
the excitement augmented as the solar crescent became narrower 
and narrower. It was still only to be seen occasionally, and 
even then only to be seen through clouds. At last the crescent 
had become perceptible as a thin line, and some hopes were 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

indulged that it would remain visible up to the supreme moment 
of totality. But alas ! just as the crescent began to shorten and 
approach the vanishing point, the clouds through which my 
vision was straining closed in again. I found it impossible 
to distinguish this extinction of light from the extinction of 
totality itself, and thus I was led to believe that totality had 
been reached some seconds before the actual moment. Those 
who were not engaged as I was at the telescope had a more 
accurate method of determining its advent by the advance of 
the shadow. Miss Klumpke was, however, so fortunate as to be 
able to note the exact moment through her telescope, and this 
is, at least, one valuable observation which is doubly acceptable 
amid the almost universal failure. 

"Of the phenomena characteristic of a total eclipse — namely, 
the corona and the prominences — not a trace was to be seen. 
Not until after the precious io6 seconds had long expired was 
the sun again seen as a crescent on the other side. The plates 
were duly exposed, no doubt, but as the sun itself was not able 
to pierce the canopy, it could not be expected that its faintly 
luminous appendages could send a single ray to a plate. It 
has thus to be admitted that the object with which the elaborate 
instruments were transported with so much trouble to Vadso 
has been entirely defeated. 

"I recall the observation made by Dr. Common when he 
found that his labour had been in vain. When all hope of 
seeing the corona was over he said : ' Now I shall smoke a 
pipe ! ' 

"But there are certain phenomena of a total eclipse which 
do not depend on the corona and the prominences, and these 
are in themselves so interesting and so striking that I feel 
heartily glad that I went to witness so sublime an event. I 
know that many others who were with us share the same opinion. 
The approach of the shadow is a spectacle of unparalleled 
magnificence, and from our situation at Vadso many of the 
party were most favourably placed for its observation. The 
eclipse took place when the sun was east and the shadow ad- 
vanced from the west. To reach us it had to travel within 
sight of the observers at Vadso, for many miles over a moun- 
tainous district, and then for many miles down the fjord. 

"Mr. Crommelin succeeded in finding the commencement of 
totality by the approach of the mighty shadow as a dark curtain 


Visits to Norway 

drawn over the sky, while the end of totality was sufficiently 
manifest by the sudden lighting up which so many observers 
in this as in other eclipses noted. The duration of totality ap- 
pears to agree with the time predicted, but the beginning and 
ending appear to have been about three seconds before the 
tabular time. This will not be considered a great difference 
when it is remembered that it only corresponds to a departure 
of the moon centre from the tabulated place by an amount which 
is less than a ten-thousandth part of the moon's apparent 

"Mr. Wesley and Mr. Green both testify to the artistic 
beauty of the phenomena of totality; they were struck by the 
indigo-purple colour of the clouds and the amber yellow light 
between, while at the horizon, tints resembling those of the 
setting sun were extremely beautiful. 

"It must be confessed that the results of scientific interest 
are very meagre, but to many of us the occasion has been one 
of much interest and profit in indirect ways. There has been 
great opportunity for the interchange of ideas, and those in 
charge of elaborate instruments have been most kind in per- 
mitting others to learn their use. The attempt made to observe 
the eclipse has been a gallant one, and if so much well-meant 
effort has not borne all the fruit that we might have wished, 
it has, at all events, tended to show that astronomy was never 
before cultivated with the same vigour that it is at present. 
Shall I add, in conclusion, that the morning after the eclipse 
was one of cloudless beauty ? " 

« * * « « 

During the outward voyage my father gave a course of 
lectures in the saloon. He dealt with the scientific aspects of 
the phenomenon which the party were about to witness, and 
he took the opportunity to explain why Vadso had been chosen 
as a point for observation : 

"Why did we not stay in London?" he asked. "Because 
the sun will not have risen at the critical time. Even at Bodo 
the sun will be too low. Speaking quite roughly, we may say 
that at any time the black shadow of the moon on the earth 
covers a patch about as large as Yorkshire. Though Yorkshire 
is a very large county, it is still only a very small part of 
England, and as our American friends sometimes remind us, 
England itself is only an inconsiderable patch of Europe, and 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

Europe itself is only a very small fraction of the whole area 
of the earth. The consequence of this is that at any moment 
there is only a very limited area of the earth from which it 
would be possible to see a total eclipse. 

"The moon is moving very quickly, and consequently this 
shadow does not remain in one place, but it hurries along with 
considerable velocity. In fact, how quickly it actually moves can 
easily be realised by looking at a globe. Here is the point out in 
the North Sea where the shadow of our satellite first commences 
to run its brief earthly course. Taking its birth in those stormy 
waters which were kind enough to abate something — though not 
everything — of their habitual fury during the time of our recent 
voyage, the shadow entered Norway at Bodo, which you will 
remember we passed on the way up. Then, moving at a speed 
far swifter than that with which any cannon-shot was ever 
fired, it has crossed those deep fjords, wide icefields, and solemn 
mountain ranges which lie between the Varanger Fjord and the 
west coast. Then, hurrying along again eastward across the 
sea, the shadow crosses Novaya Zemlya, where, let us hope, 
that our friend Sir George Baden-Powell, with Mr. Stone, Dr. 
Gill, Miss Clarke and other astronomers will be successful 
in having effected a landing and given the shadow its due 
reception. Again crossing those wintry Arctic waters, the line 
enters bleak Siberia, and the shadow commences a mighty 
Asiatic journey of some thousands of miles. Doubtless it will 
surprise many a nomad tribe to find the sun disappearing for 
a while. You all remember the magnificent incident of this 
kind in * King Solomon's Mines,' a description which makes 
every astronomer's mouth water, for on that remarkable occa- 
sion the eclipse was prolonged for a couple of hours, while we, 
alas ! at Vadso will think ourselves lucky to get one minute and 
forty-six seconds — or, rather, to give you the accuracy which is 
expected in such a scientific matter, we have exactly one minute 
forty-sixty seconds and four-tenths of a second. A friend of 
mine declined to come on this expedition. He objected to take 
his amusement in so highly concentrated a form ! Even the 
odd .4 of a second would not tempt him ! But to resume. The 
shadow in its progress hurries down across these frozen regions 
to Japan, and there we are assured that it will receive a very 
cordial welcome from the Astronomer Royal, Captain Hills, 
and Professor Turner. They will observe it from the island 
inhabited by the hairy Ainos. Let us hope that they have 
escaped all danger. The place they proposed to visit is rather 
desolate and uncivilised, and the main street at Vadso is a 
Piccadilly compared to it; nor are the people yet in a condition 
to take advantage of the scientific opportunity afforded them. 
It has, indeed, been not obscurely hinted that they run some 


Visits to Norway 

little risk from the cannibalistic propensities of the Ainos, whose 
appetite for knowledge is such that they will, I understand, 
eagerly devour all sources of information ! From there the 
shadow renews its ocean voyage. Hurrying along with a speed 
which carries it a third of the way round the earth in about 
three hours, it now crosses the broad Pacific. Doubtless it will 
lie over many a lovely coral island, probably be gazed at in 
astonishment bv the mariners whom it may chance to encounter 
in those lonely waters, and then, thousands of miles from land, 
away in the direction of the Sandwich Islands, the moon's 
shadow will take leave of our globe." 

In his third lecture, delivered on the ship a few days before 
the critical moment, he said : 

" Even if the fates are unpropitious, I shall regard this expe- 
dition as a rare and interesting experience. We have seen 
those beautiful fjords. We have learnt to know and love one 
another. We have demonstrated to those who live in these 
regions that we are not a mere nation of shopkeepers ! Nor 
have we failed to profit by our first experience of the Arctic 
regions. Some of us had conjured up a vision of polar bears 
warming their paws at the Aurora Borealis ! But what have 
we found? Tall hats, pneumatic tyres, mowing machines, 
steam merry-go-rounds, barbed wire fencing, and the Salvation 
Army ! * At Vadso we have found many kind and generous 
hearts. We have been entertained by the Governor of Fin- 
marken and his charming wife. It was a try back to the 
hospitality of the old Norse kings." 

Certain incidents varied the monotony of the voyage home. 
At Tromso the vessel ran aground. It was commonly reported 
that the engineer had gone full speed astern when he should 
have gone ahead. Whatever the reason, the s.s, Norse King 
ran backwards on to a muddy shore when it was nearly high 
water. The tide being on the ebb, there was nothing for it 
but to wait patiently until the returning waters should lift 
her from her perilous position. I say "perilous" as the idea 
that we were in danger got abroad amongst some of the pas- 
sengers. One gentleman who had brought a collapsible boat 
with him as part of his luggage was over the side and into 
his frail boat in less than no time ! 

It had been arranged to give a smoking concert in the 
saloon that evening. There was some talk of postponing the 
* All these tokens of an advanced civilisation were found within the Arctic regions. 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

festivity, but as the captain assured every one there was no 
danger it was decided to go on. Sir Robert was in the chair 
at the concert. Having reassured the assembled company by 
a message from the captain as to the safety of the ship, he said 
that he only desired to make one alteration in the programme. 
He would venture to suggest that the gentleman who had 
promised to sing "Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep" should 
give them a song more appropriate to the occasion, such as 
"My Lodging is on the Cold Ground." The laughter with 
which this suggestion was received clearly showed that the 
passengers were no longer in a very grave state of apprehension. 

On the return journey my father narrowly missed seeing 
Nansen, for the Fram, on its way back from the North, arrived 
at Hammerfest three days after the Norse King had started 
homeward from that port. In later years, when he was chaffed 
about lecturing on an eclipse of the sun which he had never 
seen, he would reply : " It is no worse than Nansen lecturing 
on the North Pole, to which he has never been ! " 

When the vessel was about half-way down the coast a cable- 
gram was received to say that the English visitors at a certain 
hotel would be glad to welcome the members of the Eclipse Ex- 
pedition to a fancy dress ball ! We thought at the time that a 
fancy dress entertainment was rather a tall order in the wilds of 
Norway, but rather than disappoint their hospitable countrymen 
the passengers determined to do what they could. Eventually 
two boatfuls of passengers whose attire was fanciful in the 
extreme, were sent ashore to attend the ball. One man was dressed 
as a Laplander; another, wholly disregarding the summer heat, 
was clothed from head to foot in a polar bear skin which he 
had purchased at Hammerfest. My father accompanied the 
party in his ordinary attire. Everyone was curious to see 
whether our ideas of fancy dress would tally with those of the 
English visitors ashore. What was our horror to find that no 
single one of the ladies and gentlemen assembled to greet us 
wore anything which could by any stretch of the imagination be 
described as fanciful. The look upon their faces is more easily 
imagined than described ! They had come dressed in their 
best to welcome a party of savants; they encountered instead a 
number of people who looked like patients newly escaped from 
a lunatic asylum, who had ransacked the glass cases of an 
ethnological museum for articles of attire I Nevertheless, 


Visits to Norway 

the passengers "took the floor" for some time, and made as 
merry as possible under the circumstances. But it soon be- 
came apparent that, instead of being entertained, the dancers 
were themselves the entertainers ! The windows of the ball- 
room (which was on the ground floor) gradually filled with the 
round faces of scores of Norwegian peasants, who were doubt- 
less much impressed by seeing the kind of clothing which is 
worn by scientific English men and women ; while as a climax, 
in the midst of the dance, Sir Robert was called upon for a 
speech ! The cause of the mistake did not transpire until 
afterwards. It appeared that an error had been made in the 
cablegram. The words "fancy dress" in the message should 
have been "full dress" ! 




SIR ROBERT BALL paid several visits to the New World. 
In 1884 he attended a meeting of the British Association 
at Montreal, after which he took an extended tour through the 
United States, delivering many lectures. 

Amongst his fellow-passengers on board the s.s. Oregon 
(Dominion Line) were Mr. Williamson, S.F.T.C.D., F.R.S., 
Mr. H. Barton, Professor T. R. Jones, F.R.S., Professor 
Kirkland, the Rev. H. Swanzy, and Dr. Anthony Traill, 
afterwards Provost of T.C.D. 

He kept a diary during this expedition, but it is for the most 
part a record of places seen and of distinguished people whom 
he met. There are, however, a few extracts which appear to be 
of general interest. The late Dr. Traill took a prominent part 
in the various recreations which were organised to amuse the 
passengers on the outward voyage : 

"August 18th, 1884. — In the afternoon Traill started a game 
of hop-scotch, which seemed very successful. T. was himself 
so victorious that he has been acknowledged the champion 
hop-scotch player of the Atlantic Ocean." 

My father was much impressed by the sight of the Atlantic 
in a storm : 

" Wednesday, August 20th. — To-day a wish has been grati- 
fied. I have seen the wild Atlantic in a storm. I don't suppose 
the captain would have called it a storm, and the second officer 
told me that if they never had anything worse than this, then 
Atlantic troubles would be very small. But to one who had 
never seen anything but the Channel it was undoubtedly a 
majestic sight. The wind yesterday was from the north-west, 
and most bitterly cold. To-day it had gone round to the south- 
west. I went on deck in the morning, and found the sea 
tremendously high. Torrents of rain were pouring. After 
breakfast the gale had increased so much that one could not 


Visits to Canada and United States 

cross the deck without holding on to the ropes which were 
stretched across the ship for that purpose. After breakfast a 
few of the more venturesome thought they would go to the 
stern and have a sight of the Atlantic billows. We crawled 
hand over hand along the ropes until at length we reached the 
stern, where the deck-house afforded some shelter. Here we 
could see the glory of Nature. Every moment the sea was close 
at our feet, then we were lifted aloft till the sea was fully thirty 
feet beneath us. The screw, being half out of the water, began 
to buzz round. Sometimes a mighty wave would come along, 
and it would seem impossible for the ship to escape a deluge, 
but she would rise so beautifully that a heavy shower of spray 
was all the damage done. The track left by the screw w^as 
exquisite, the bubbles of air which were carried down in its 
revolution giving to the sea patches of an exquisite turquoise, 
while sometimes, through the top of a wave, a lovely emerald 
was seen. The aspect of the sea often reminded one of views 
in miniature of mountain scenery. The w-aves would look like 
the mountains, with a long, irregular valley between. Some- 
times I was struck by the appearance of a great basin hollowed 
out in the ocean, and by the stupendous massiveness of the 
seas. There was, as usual, the greatest difficulty in estimating 
the height of the billows. My estimate was an interval of 
about twenty feet from crest to hollow, but more experienced 
travellers said that ten feet would be nearer the mark. One or 
two more venturesome of the ladies came to the stern, among 
them a young lady who had many admirers on board. She 
was conducted to and from the stern by various swains, and 
if to brave the perils of the journey it was necessary to hold 
her hand very tightly, why, it did no harm to anybody ! Of 
course, this storm led to much more sickness on board, but 
I am glad to say I have never felt a qualm, so I suppose I am 
now a seasoned vessel." 

"Thursday, August 21st. — I was interrupted just now 
by the intelligence that an iceberg was to be seen. I went up 
on deck, and saw a truly glorious sight. There, on the star- 
board bow, about five miles away, were the lovely pyramids 
of dazzling white ! We estimated the height at 200 feet, but 
it was very difficult to make any very accurate investigation. 
Indeed, we could not be sure as to whether the iceberg was 
above the horizon or not. The horizon line seemed to cross 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

the iceberg in front, at least the best glasses would show 
no wash on the sides. I was surprised to see the berg so 
brilliantly white. Others we saw looked quite black. It seemed 
to depend upon the way the sunlight fell. Altogether we saw 
about half a dozen great bergs ; none were less than about four 
or five miles distant. There were small but brilliant pieces of 
ice floating past the ship. Some of the great icebergs showed 
the most beautiful Alpine scenery, and Traill was longing to 
be landed on one with a rope and ice-axe. They gave an im- 
posing idea of the depth of the ocean when we remembered 
that the mass is six or seven times as great below as it is 
above. I would have liked to lie to and go off and explore the 
berg in a boat. The captain does not love them at all, and he 
says that there will be but little rest or sleep for him now until 
we reach Quebec, still 800 miles away. A glance at the map 
shows how these noble bergs come down from the western 
shores of Greenland or the opposite side of Baffin's Bay or 
Davis's Strait. Their ever-varying shape is noteworthy as 
we change our relative position in regard to them. I never 
regretted more than to-day my want of artistic powers." 

"August 2$th. — The first impression I got when I walked 
on the shore was the fact that many of the weeds and grasses 
were the same as those we know at home. The whole 
flora seemed to have been characterised by imported weeds. 
There were, however, numbers of plants to show we were not 
in England. Thus there was abundance of chicory, a rather 
striking one being a deep yellow {Solidago, is it ?), a large tuft 
of which I afterwards noticed gracefully placed in the bosom of 
a smart Canadian girl." 

"September 12th. — I started this morning with Goodbody, 
Fitzgerald, and Admiral Ommaney for Niagara Falls. To 
our delight the weather seems inclined to cool. Our route 
was a pretty one along the Lehigh Valley to Buffalo, 
and thence at midnight to the Falls. We entered a bus, 
our luggage passed the Customs in a twinkling, and we 
crossed the suspension bridge. There the roar of the Falls 
became audible, and then we drove to the Prospect House 
Hotel. This is emphatically the place to put up at here. We 
are close to the Horseshoe Fall, and from the door there is 
a superb view. At night all we could see was the white mass 
of foam, and we of course heard the thunders. All night long 


Visits to Canada and United States 

our beds vibrated with the quiver produced by the water — 
100,000,000 tons of which every hour drop over the precipice a 
height of 160 feet. We anticipate a treat for the next few days. 

"September i^th, 1884. — The first day at Niagara is a 
glorious sensation, but I am not surprised at people being 
disappointed. One lady was disappointed. Someone said 
that she expected to see the Atlantic Ocean pouring down 
from the moon ! But it is far the noblest spectacle that 
I have seen — in fact all other natural phenomena, such as the 
glaciers, or the great mountains, of Switzerland, seem to pale 
in comparison with this unique sight. After breakfast we 
started, and, turning our backs on the Falls, crossed the sus- 
pension bridge and proceeded to Goat Island. Goat Island is 
a place of exquisite interest. In itself it is a beautiful park 
where the primaeval forest has only been altered by a clearing 
here and there, and the cutting of the larger trees. It has one 
small island in the American Fall, and it has three small islands 
in the rapids over the Horseshoe. The magnificence of the 
rapids between those islands fascinated me. They are bridged 
over, and consequently there are dozens of places where most 
ravishing views can be had." 

"September i^th. — There are several things at Niagara 
which especially struck me. (i) The multitude of places at 
which the Falls and rapids can be approached. You can actu- 
ally put your hands into the water at the brink of the American 
Falls at both sides, and the same is practically true of the 
Horseshoe. (2) The beauty of the islands and the vegetation. 
(3) The splendour of the lower rapids. (4) The extraordinary 
calmness beneath the great Fall. This was subsequently ex- 
plained by the very simple fact that the rapid water burrows 
under the mass of still water. I believe a boat can go up quite 
close to the Falls. We dressed in oilskins, after having removed 
our ordinary attire, and went to the Cave of the Winds. The 
noise and majesty of the Fall are most imposing, and I could 
not resist a mighty shout at the glory of the scene, though if 
my shout had been ten times as loud, it would not have been 
audible to the rest of the party. The circular rainbows were 

"September i^th. — Goat Island is a unique spot on this 
planet. It is many acres in extent, and is covered with beautiful 
woods and an undergrowth of wild vines and Virginian 

V 321 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

creepers. There is a charming island known as Luna, which 
divides off the American Fall. In fact Luna cuts off the part 
of the Fall under which we went to the Cave of the Winds. 
Then there are three little islands — lovely gems — known as the 
Three Sisters, set in the fearful rapids. These islands are 
bridged, so that it is possible to sit at the edge of the rapids 
in these lovely spots ; and an awful sight the rapids are either 
at one's feet or stretching away for a mile across to the other 
side. The purity of the water is one great charm, and the 
great pieces of waste timber now and then heaped in piles are 
a feature. From Goat Island, too, the American side of the 
Horseshoe can be approached to where the Terrapin Tower 
once stood. The sheerness of the Fall is remarkable, but it is 
shallow at the edge. The depth increases towards the centre of 
the Fall." 

His second visit to the United States was in September, 
1887, when he sailed with his son Robert in the Cunard liner 
Scythia to Boston, where he gave a course of lectures at the 
Lowell Institute. During his stay he was the guest of Dr. 
B. E. Cotting, the Curator of the Lowell Institute, at his 
hospitable house in Roxbury. His host and his charming 
family, for whom my father always cherished the warmest 
sentiments, spared no pains to make his visit pleasant and to 
introduce him to customs particularly American and Bostonian. 
My brother recalls how the table was designed to display 
American dishes such as squash pie, green corn, Boston baked 
beans and brown bread, and Washington pie. When the 
Washington pie was set before him, Sir Robert delighted his 
kind friends by remarking: "Why, it's a jam sandwich!" 
Thereupon Dr. Cotting, who had a wonderful fund of anecdote, 
told of an English friend who commented on the pie with the 
remark : "Washington was a great man, but his pies I " 

My father's next visit to the United States took place in 
1901, when he went on a lecture tour under the personal guid- 
ance of Major Pond, who made all the necessary business 
arrangements. The Major having visited him at Cambridge, 
Sir Robert wrote to his son Robert S. Ball (July 15th, 1901) : 

"Major Pond's visit here was an interesting incident. He 
was accompanied by his wife and son, and the three are a re- 
markable trio. I should imagine the Major to be of great energy 


Visits to Canada and United States 

and push in business matters on the large scale. We have no 
very definite plan mapped out yet. He has made a number of 
engagements for me, but he had not the particulars with him. 
His wife's sister, the head clerk in his office, attends to such 
details. He said, ' If there is any business to be got for you I'll 
get it.' It is his custom (to use his own expression) to ' sell ' his 
lecturers out to Institutions for some nights, while he tries to 
make as many engagements as he can on his own responsibility, 
and pushes and advertises the thing to the utmost. I am not very 
sanguine about a large pecuniary result, but I feel I shall enjoy 
the trip, and if I can strike oil at the commencement we may do 
well. I rather thought the Major was a little surprised to find 
how well known I was over here in the lecturing line. From this, 
and a few other things, it is plain that such fame as I may have 
attained in Great Britain does not seem to have extended across 
the Atlantic. However, he is resolved to boom me as much as 
he can. He is to meet me on the arrival of the steamer with a 
bevy of inter\aewers and reporters, who will chronicle for the 
delight of the American public my precise appearance, the bald- 
ness of my head, the glassiness of my stare, and the interesting 
points connected with the voyage. Then I am to stay at his 
house as his guest. 

"I have fixed up the seven lectures at Boston, and yesterday 
I received the welcome announcement that I am to be given the 
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws at the Yale University in 

" I don't think it likely that I shall get across to San Fran- 
cisco, but I shall certainly be at Chicago, and I believe I am 
already engaged to appear at St. Paul and St. Louis." 

Sir Robert sailed for New York on the s.s. Cymric on 
October i8th, 1901. Before leaving home he had arranged to 
write a series of collective letters to the family. These, to the 
number of seven, were duly sent, the first bearing the date 
November 3rd, 1901, and the last January 9th, 1902 : 

"St. Botolph's Club, 

"Boston, Mass., 

" My dear Family, " ^^^'"^^'^ 3^^. 1901 • 

" I think we arranged that it would be convenient that I should 
write a collective letter. At all events, I take it for granted you 
will be interested to hear of my travels, even though I have not 
anything very remarkable to narrate. So here goes. On the 
voyage I was placed at the captain's table and I found myself 
very well situated. On my left were Captain Yonge, R.N., and 
his daughter. Their home is in Devonshire, and they were on 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

their way to New Zealand via San Francisco and Honolulu. I 
had many an hour's pleasant walk with this exceedingly nice man. 
On the other side was a man from Philadelphia. He belonged 
to a watch company there where they make 3,500 watches daily. 
He has given me a pressing invitation to see their place. I did 
not, however, see much of him during the voyage. Opposite me 
were an elderly man and his wife, who lived at Oxford. He is 
a barrister, who is a railway contractor for amusement, and has 
estates in Georgia which he was about to visit. He had a son 
at Trinity Hall. Directly he heard my name he said that he 
had travelled with Robert and played chess with him through- 
out the voyage, and Robert had made so good an impression that 
his father was at once welcomed as an old friend. 

" In the course of the evening I asked a question which any- 
one but a donkey would have asked long before. I inquired, 
* When does the ship arrive ? ' I was horrified to hear the reply : 
' On Sunday, if all goes well.' Others said not till Monday, or 
even Tuesday. This gave me an awful turn, for I was engaged 
to give my first Lowell Lecture at Boston on Monday at 7.45, 
and Boston is over 200 miles from New York, for which we 
were bound. An alternative occurred to me. I thought of 
going ashore at Queenstown. I could wait there till the follow- 
ing day, and catch the mail steamer Campania, which would 
sail the next day, but would soon overtake us. Indeed I was 
only deterred from adopting this course by the fact that I might 
not be able to get a berth in the other ship, while it would have 
involved the sacrifice of my White Star ticket altogether. So I 
thought I would chance it, and trust to the luck which I have 
had in similar emergencies. 

" The next day there was a violent gale in our very teeth 
which reduced our speed very much, so that when the Campania, 
which left Liverpool on Saturday, passed us at 6 o'clock on 
Tuesday morning, although we had had a full day's start, I 
abandoned all hope of my first lecture, and felt even the second 
very risky. I then put the subject out of my mind as far as 
possible, and sought to derive what enjoyment I could from 
the voyage, and found it to be a very pleasant one. 

"Although we had a gale, and though we had persistent ad- 
verse winds the whole way, yet the ship was so vast that as a 
rule waves had no more effect on her than if she had been the 
Skellig Rock itself ! At night sometimes I used to watch the top 
of the mast against the stars, and could see no motion in it. I 
don't say we did not get something of a tumble now and then. 
One evening we dined with the fiddles on the table, but the 
captain said it was the only occasion on which the fiddles were 
produced during the four months he had been in command of 
the ship. There were a few gaps at the table, no doubt ; but 


Visits to Canada and United States 

then there are some people who get sea-sick even when driving 
over a canal bridge. 

" On the upper deck of the Cymric there is a magnificent 
promenade. Captain Yonge and I generally had this to our- 
selves. The rest of the party seemed to spend the day stretched 
out in those awful-looking inventions known as ' deck chairs.' 
These were ranged on one side under what I may sufficiently 
describe as a veranda, and they all reminded me of that hospital 
at Davos Platz, where you were all so jolly well sold about the 
tea you expected to get! Each afternoon when the rain stopped 
and when the wind would allow us to stand (which it often 
didn't) we had a grand walk. Occasionally the captain of the 
ship, Captain Thomson, would join us. 

" One day he asked me whether 1 would like to accompany 
him in his morning tour of inspection. Of course I went. 
The steerage accommodation is excellent, and I wondered how 
often these people in their own homes get such a dinner as 
the soup, roast beef and plum pudding that I saw being 
prepared for them. Such excellent accommodation as they 
have! There was a fine day room filled with neat-looking girls 
and women at their work, and a corresponding smoking-room 
for the men. Each of the married couples have a nice room to 
themselves. The single men sleep in bunks, which are arranged 
on a lazy tongs principle similar to the affair in the boxes of 
soldiers that we used to play with. In the day all the bunks 
shut up close to the side of the ship, and there is a fine dining- 
room as a result. 

"The usual concert was held on board for the Liverpool and 
New York sailors' charities. Over £"] was collected. I was put 
into the chair. I had actually established a musical reputation on 
board by leading the singing at the Sunday service ! I heard 
later that there were two professionals on board, but that Sunday 
was rough, and even my singing was as good as theirs on that 
day. The concert performance was a very feeble one. No 
lady could be induced to appear. As they put down as Part II. 
* Address by the Chairman,' I was compelled to make a few 
remarks. I displayed a marvellous knowledge of the Missions 
to Seamen. This they could not understand, until I explained 
how it was I knew so much about it.* 

" The great majority of the passengers were Americans return- 
ing home, and as we approached New York they appeared to be 
consumed with anxiety as to the Custom House inspection, as 
they are liable to pay duty even on a pocket handkerchief pur- 
chased abroad. I had also some misgivings on the subject of my 
slides. Dr. Cunningham had had to pay ;^ii on his in the 

* Lady Ball had for many years been treasurer of the Cambridge branch of 
the Mission. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

shape of duty, so that from one cause or another I had good 
reason to wish myself well on shore. On the last day the ship 
made great tracks, and late on Sunday night I awoke to find the 
engines stopped. We had anchored at Staten Island, there to 
await the quarantine inspection at daybreak, and the visit of the 
Customs officials. By about 9.30 we were in New York Harbour 
— ajid at last we reached the dock. It now seemed certain that I 
should catch my i P.M. train for Boston. The ship came along- 
side, and there, on shore, was the great Major Pond. Then fol- 
lowed a long delay about the luggage. I was asked a good 
many questions about the slides. ' How long had I had them ? ' 
' When would I take them out ? ' ' Were they my own ? ' ' Did 
I intend to sell them ? ' At last they passed them and I was free. 
Major Pond engaged a carriage. They now charge only two 
dollars for a drive from the quay ; it used to be pounds ! The 
interviewer, of course, at once appeared, and I gave my opinion 
on all things in the heavens on the spot. I was then furnished 
with the list of my engagements up to date. It was evident that 
I was to have a very lively time of it so far as the number of 
lectures and the distances to be travelled were concerned. 

" I had lunch with the Major, after which one of his satellites 
called a carriage and drove me off to the New York Central 
Depot. Good heavens, what a city New York is! The sky- 
scrapers of twenty-seven stories ; the hotels which beat any pre- 
tence of Aladdin's palace that I ever saw at the pantomime ; 
the magnificence of the shops and the palaces of the residents. 
The brilliance and brightness exceeded on that lovely day even 
Paris itself! It seemed to me to be a 'New World' indeed! 
My luggage having been checked, I was deposited in a Palace 
Car, which soon started on the five hours' run to Boston. There 
I duly arrived just one hour and forty minutes before the moment 
when the lecture was to commence. It was indeed a very tight fit, 
after a journey of 3,000 miles. But never mind, I was in time. 
But I had had such a time of it from 6 A.M. that I was not in 
the best form for the lecture. I cannot otherwise account for the 
fact that I heard several complaints that I did not speak loud 
enough! This was a novel charge! A room had been secured 
for me in a fine hotel, ' The Brunswick,' which is directly opposite 
the * Tech.' I was shown into a room heated by pipes like a 
Turkish bath. It had a beautiful bathroom attached, and was 
perfect in every way as soon as I turned off the heat. But I must 
say I felt very low and homesick that night, and would have 
given anything to cut the whole concern and go right home (I am 
gradually picking up the language!). 

" Yesterday (Saturday) Professor Simon Newcomb came here 
to dine, and I was glad to have the opportunity of a talk with 
him. The evening was free, so I went to the theatre to see 


Visits to Canada and United States 

'Uncle Tom's Cabin.' The public mind is greatly exercised on 
the negro question at present. There is one man of colour, Mr. 
Booker Washington, who has founded a great industrial negro 
college. Of him all men speak well ; but when President Roose- 
velt invited him to dinner, he was forthwith denounced on one 
hundred and fifty platforms. His name has been hissed at public 
meetings, as his action gave mortal offence to the South. A 
Southern girl is reported to have said, 'I do not mind kissing a 
nigger, but I will not sit at table with them ! ' Mr. Booker Wash- 
ington himself chaffed them all in a speech. He said: 'You 
whites came over here where you were not wanted, and you intru- 
sively forced yourselves upon the aboriginal inhabitants. Now 
we blacks have a much better claim. We all came by invitation — 
by a most pressing invitation which we could not decline, and our 
kind hosts even paid vast sums of money for bringing us over ! ' 

" To-day I went out to ' Blue Hill,' and had a pleasant lunch 
there with Mr. and Mrs. Rotch. He is the meteorologist who 
founded the Blue Hill Observatory, of w^hich I have often heard. 
It is the highest point on the coast and commands an immense 
view. But the chief interest centres in the kites. How I did 
wish I had R. there! Mr. Rotch has great kites which ascend to 
the height of three miles. The ' string ' is piano wire, and there 
is a steam engine for hauling the kites down again ! They are the 
curious box shape. Each kite costs £12, and carries a set of self- 
recording instruments, showing the temperature, pressure, and 
velocity of wind and the degrees of moisture. I greatly enjoyed 
all I saw. Mrs. Rotch told me that when crossing over in the 
steamer last August she happened to talk to a lady who said she 
w^s Mrs. Huddleston, of Sawston Hall, near Cambridge. And 
now I have brought my record to the evening of Sunday, 
November 3rd, when I am sitting in the club writing these lines. 
I will try to write another such letter next week giving a further 

" New York, 

" Thursday, November 28M, 1901. 
" My dear Family, 

"Some three weeks must have elapsed since I wrote my first 
and only collective letter,* and if I have not written again it is 
not, indeed, for want of something to tell you all, but because I 
have been on the run without any cessation ever since I came over ! 
One afternoon about ten days ago at 3 P.M. it suddenly occurred 
to me that I had actually nothing to do until it was time for me 
to go to dress for a dinner party. This was a unique experience, 
and the afternoon was passed in writing a few necessary letters 
relating to my movements. Both letters and replies to invitations 

* He had, however, written many letters to my mother. 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

have been shamefully neglected. The volume of work I have in 
hand will be understood when I say that this is the 29th day 
since I landed, and that I have already given twenty-four lec- 
tures. Nine of these were in Boston, which has been my head- 
quarters up to the present, but now the Boston lectures are over, 
and I take my way to the South. My address will be as before, 
CO. Major Pond, Everett House, New York, 

"I will now give a general account of myself for the last three 
weeks. Let me commence on November 14th, which was largely 
devoted to matters connected with the ' Tech,' where Robert's 
memory is well preserved. Many people told me they were there 
with him as a fellow student. Professor Lanza, whom Robert 
will remember, asked me to lunch at his house, and there were 
eight or nine people there, including his sister, who says R. used 
to go and play chess with her. Lanza was not married in those 

"After my lunch with Lanza I had a few visits to pay, and 
then went to dine with Professor Munro at the Technology Club. 
After that I gave an address to the members on ' The Ice Age.' 
All the leading people of the ' Tech.' were there, and the room 
was packed with present and former pupils. The thing went 
really very well indeed. But my night was not yet over ; for 
after returning to the club I went to the station, and there entered 
a sleeper for New York. The Pullman sleepers give more room 
than those beds in which we came home from Switzerland. The 
long car is lined with them, in upper and lower berths, with heavy 
curtains in front. 

" I woke in the morning to find myself in New York, and 
certainly each glimpse I have only makes the wonders of that city 
more impressive. A view from the harbour on a bright day can 
only be likened to some astonishing conception of Gustave Dore. 
It looks as if it were on a hill, but the city is on a dead flat, and 
the hill-like appearance is given by the twenty-seven-story build- 
ings, which are at a little distance from the water. A church 
which used to be the highest spire in the United States has a 
most curious appearance among these monsters, which seem to 
start, as it were, from a level about the top of the church, while 
they have ever so many magnificent flats far away above the top 
of the spire. I stayed for the night in the Grand Union Hotel, 
close to the great New York Central Railway Station. If you 
could only see the waiting-room of white marble, which is as big 
as King's chapel! I was made free of the Century Club at New 
York, where I was caught by interviewers, who abound every- 
where. There is a man here who has some little repute as an 
astronomer. He had some conversation with me, and Major 
Pond tells me that he got fifty pounds from his paper for what he 
sent them as the account of the interview! I need not say any- 


Visits to Canada and United States 

thing about the lecture that night at a place called Morristown. 
However, I met some nice people there, and by one of them was 
taken over the New York Mutual Life Office. If anyone desires 
to know what American business enterprise means, I recommend 
him to go and see this building. It has only got eighteen 
stories no doubt, but the beauty of the offices would be rather 
surprising to anyone fcimiliar with similar places in England. 
The president's rooms are decorated and furnished as rooms 
might be in Windsor Castle, for the president says he is accus- 
tomed to nice things in his own home, and he does not see why he 
should not have them in his office also. The business there trans- 
acted is on a scale one might expect. They tell me that two 
hundred and fifty applications for new policies are received daily, 
and they sometimes issue policies for a million dollars! In this 
place, as elsewhere, it seems to me that the Americans trust each 
other with greater freedom and confidence than we do. 

"The next day I was due back in Boston, and I was to dine 
with Mr. Percival Lowell. There was a nice party at the house 
of his sister, Mrs. Roosevelt, sister-in-law of the President. At 
the party we had Professor Pickering, the great astronomer at 
Harvard College, Professor Reine, professor of mathematics, 
Professor Cross (whom we all remember at Zermatt), the Presi- 
dent of the ' Tech.' and others whom I cannot recall, and a 
pleasant night it was. The claims of Boston are always being 
jeered at by other towns ; for instance, a New York paper, in its 
items of intelligence, says-. 'The sun is 95,000,000 miles from 
Boston,' and that a Boston man, after hearing Macbeth, said he 
didn't think there were five men in Boston who could have written 
Shakespeare! But these gibes have a foundation. There is cer- 
tainly a most brilliant and cultured society of men and women 
in Boston. I was often astonished at the things they were familiar 
with, and they know more about England than do most Britishers. 
I had no lecture this night, which was fortunate, as I was quite 
hoarse with a cold. 

"On Thursday, November 21st, I went down to Wellesley 
College. Professor and Mrs. Pickering came with me. Miss 
Whitney received us at the station with a carriage and drove us 
to Wellesley, another of those wonderful ladies' colleges. Of 
course we had to see the Observatory, a white marble building, 
and, of course, we had the usual mass of presentations. It seems 
as if I have done nothing since I came, except hold a sort of 
continual levee. There was no lecture, but I was suddenly called 
upon to explain to a crowd ' How I first came to work at the 
Theory of Screws.' Then back to Boston and to dinner at Mr. 
Lawrence Lowell's. This was given in my honour ; in fact in 
this case, as in every other, I have had to choose the day myself. 
The last Boston function was the dinner given in my honour at 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

the Tavern Club. This is a club mainly of literary, scientific 
and artistic people, all of whom turned up. Many of them I 
already knew, Professor Morse, and the Lowells, and Professor 
Chandler, and Professor Farlowe (who was one of the guests at 
the Zoo breakfast in 1892); but many scores of new ones were 
presented. There was a great dinner, and then a speech from 
the president. G. L. Dickinson, Fellow of King's College, was 
there also, and Professor Armbruster. Both of these have been 
giving Lowell lectures. Thus in a great and festive gathering 
my visit to bright and beautiful Boston came to an end. 

" Tuesday, November 26th, at 9 A.M., saw me off on my way 
to Concord, N.H. There I had two lectures, but my greatest 
achievement was to see Mrs. Eddy. I never before saw a 
really divine being. Her central hall is there, and the lady 
conductor who was with me said she drives out every afternoon 
in a carriage and pair with coachman and footman, and just as 
she said so the veritable carriage appeared. Inside was a vener- 
able and dignified old lady over eighty. She has, I believe, 
millions of adherents all over the world, but I am afraid she 
has not a great deal of honour among most of her own towns- 

" On the train near Lake Erie, 

" December nth, igoi. 
" My dear Family, 

"I am still on the rush. The last two nights I have been 
travelling, and I travel again to-night. But the Pullman sleepers 
are very comfortable, so this is no hardship ; and indeed it agrees 
with me, for, in good hour be it spoken, I have never felt better 
in my life. I shall take up my parable where I left off, at the 
Thanksgiving turkey at Major Pond's on November 28th. 

" The guests were Sarah Grand, Max O'Rell, Miss Proctor, 
daughter of the astronomer, and Mrs. Seton Thompson, wife of 
the naturalist. He is all the rage over here just now. Mrs. Seton 
Thompson asked me afterwards ' If many Englishwomen 
smoked.' I was delighted to say that I had never seen any other 
British female perpetrate such an atrocity except the old news- 
woman in College Green, who had a cutty pipe! Max O'Rell 
was excellent company, and is a good-hearted, genial man. The 
feast, in accordance with the correct Thanksgiving Day tradition, 
was of a Gargantuan order. It takes the place of Christmas 
with us, for though December 25th is observed here, it is, I am 
told, rather as a day of gifts and Christmas trees, than as an 
orgy of solid feeding. (Parenthesis. The guard here calls out 
' Ann Arbor.' I am sure this does not mean much to any one of 
my readers, but it was here that Dr. Briinnow worked in the 
Observatory before he came to Dunsink ; here it was that he met 


Visits to Canada and United States 

and married die daughter of die President of the University of 

"After I had eaten my share of turkey and as much as I 
could of the two-pound slice of mince-pie, which custom impera- 
tively demanded should be placed before each guest, I started 
with one of the lady guests and Mrs. Seton Thompson in a car- 
riage and pair, provided by the Major, to take us back to New 
York. How many of you know that New York is on an island .' 
To reach it from Jersey City we had to drive via the ferry, 
a huge steamer which takes carriage and all on board. 

" In the great station at Jersey City I repaired the ravages of 
the night's travel. I ascended a throne to allow an artist to 
' shine ' my boots. It is an elaborate function. Several different 
preparations are put on, and finally the edges of the sole are 
painted with varnish ; cost, 5d. Then I submitted to the barber. 
This is an American luxury which I appreciate. It is also an 
elaborate and tedious function compared with the scraping and 
gashing in my own toilet room. I emerge like a new-born babe 
with the fragrance of Araby the blest ! Then I get my break- 
fast. This, like everything else, is always ready in America, 
and then I start for Baltimore. At Baltimore, as at all other 
University towns, a truly royal welcome awaited me. Dr. Gil- 
man (an old friend), who has just resigned the presidency of the 
Johns Hopkins University, w^as at the station to receive me. 
Then I was taken off to a luncheon where the chief notabilities 
were assembled. This began at three (I could not arrive earlier), 
and then we went to the President's to a reception, at which all 
the University were present. Then back to dinner at Dr. Gil- 
man's (en famille). 

" They knew Mr. Maxwell Hutton, having stayed at his 
house during the Tercentenary at Dublin. As soon as dinner 
was over I went to the University, where I was told everybody 
who was anybody at Baltimore had assembled, to hear me 
discourse on ' Time and Tide.' This was Saturday night, and 
the next day I had the offer of being a Presbyterian with Dr. 
Gilman, or an Episcopalian with Mrs. Gilman and her daughters. 
I chose the latter, resisting a strong inward temptation to be a 
stay-at-home atheist for the day, trying to cope with an appal- 
ling arrear of letters unanswered, even of invitations not replied 
to, and not even read. Every^'here I go I receive a bundle of 
letters and telegrams. After lunch I started for Washington. 
There I was received by Mr, Charles Bell, cousin of the renowTied 
Graham Bell, his next-door neighbour and kinsman in another 
sense, for they married sisters. My host left Dublin in 1873, 
and is now head of a bank ; indeed, he is the owner of it, and is 
greatly respected by everyone. He took me home to his beauti- 
ful house, wife, two pretty daughters and two boys. The day 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

being lovely they brought me out in a superb carriage for a drive. 
Washington is the stateliest of cities, the capital of capitals. 
It has spacious avenues and magnificent residences. I saw the 
modest White House with the flags showing that the President is 
at home. There are no sentries ; everyone may go up to and into 
the White House without let or hindrance. The Capitol, so the 
House of Parliament is called, is the most impressive building I 
have ever seen. It is on an eminence, and the city radiates from 
it. Then we drove off to the country, and my host took me in to 
call at a beautiful house, the home of his mother-in-law. There 
I had another experience of the serious danger of expressing 
admiration for anything. The lady, Mrs. Hubbard, whom, of 
course, I had never seen or heard of before, happened to have 
lying on her table a beautiful book, just out, in two volumes, 
describing the Harriman expedition to the North Pole, or there- 
abouts. It is filled with photographs, and when I expressed my 
admiration of it, she at once said, ' // is yours.' My remon- 
strances were futile. Her son-in-law was directed to take it to 
the carriage, which he did. Another instance took place yester- 
day. Mr. Warner, of the great firm who made the Yerkes tele- 
scope, showed me some beautiful binoculars that he is making 
which I admired. The result was the same ; a beauty in a case 
(wholesale price £g) arrived last night. I expostulated, said I had 
only one eye, and was only accepting under false pretences. No 
use, home it goes ! In future I intend to reserve my admiration for 
the Capitol at Washington ; that will be safe. Two other smaller 
books and a fine portmanteau, or dress suit case, I have also 
acquired on the same terms. But this is a digression. I go back 
to Washington, where I had indeed a most cordial and distin- 
guished reception. You will remember it was Sunday, so there 
being no lecture, there was first of all a small dinner party at 
Mr. Bell's, the two guests being my old friend Professor New- 
comb, whom I was glad to see looking much better than when I 
met him at the Master of Sidney's in Cambridge, and also 
Mr. Graham Bell. It was a delightful party. In the evening 
it was followed by a reception, attended by all the scientific men 
of Washington and many other notable people. I was specially 
glad to see General Powell, a famous soldier of the war forty 
years ago, who has since distinguished himself by a voyage down 
the Canyon of Colorado. He is without a rigkt arm, and his 
bosom friend is a general of the Southern army, erstwhile his 
redoubtable antagonist, who unfortunately lost his lefi arm, 
and it is interesting to note that those brave warriors of hostile 
armies are now on such terms that when one buys a pair of 
gloves he sends the odd glove on to the other! I cannot re- 
member the tenth part or even the fifteenth part of the number of 
people to whom I have been presented. Everything develops into . 


Visits to Canada and United States 

a function. I thought I should have a few quiet hours on the 
following day, but how could I refuse Professor Newcomb when 
he offered to call for me in his 'buggy' at lo A.M. ? He duly 
app)eared at the appointed hour, and we drove by a long route 
through the wonderful growing suburbs of Washington to the 
Observatory. We had much talk, for, as you all know, Newcomb 
is one of the greatest mathematicians in the world, and we had 
much to discuss. All the staff were in evidence at the Observa- 
tory, a beautiful new place recently erected by the nation. The 
nation can well afford it, for in this happy country they have 
;i6 20,000,000 a year of revenue beyond their expenses, and this 
notwithstanding that they pay ^^30,000,000 a year of pensions 
arising out of the Civil War forty years ago ! This is believed to 
be an awful abuse, but the nation seems content. One of the 
biggest piles of buildings in Washington is the Pension Office. 

"Then Newcomb drove me to what is one of the wonders of 
the world, the Congressional Library. It is a marble palace of 
art. Each of the vast corridors appears to be made of a different 
kind of marble, and I have no vocabulary to describe the great 
hall. In a thousand years it may be the same wonder that the 
Doge's Palace is now. In my Philistine view it is infinitely more 
beautiful and splendid than all Venice put together! But the 
beauty is apt to make one forget that it is a library. All I can 
say is that no one in Great Britain has the faintest idea of what 
a library can be or ought to be, until he has paid a visit to 
Washington. The Map Room alone would be a vast library any- 
w^iere else. The books are delivered from the * book stacks ' to 
the readers by beautiful machinery on something of the principle 
of the machine for giving change in shops. Mr. Putnam, the 
head librarian, and a few of the more important people have a 
daily lunch party in a room at the top which is reached by an 
elevator. A superb view of the city and the incomparable Capitol 
is obtained from this room. I was the honoured guest. The 
day was nearly over by the time I left the Library, and when I 
was brought back to the house I found, as usual, that there had 
been numerous callers and invitations. There was barely time to 
dress for dinner and be off to the lecture. I was introduced by 
Professor Newcomb to a vast audience, and things went very well. 
That is a very fair sample of my day for the last six weeks. 

"Tuesday, December 3rd, found me on the way to Richmond, 
the capital of Virginia, where I was booked for three lectures on 
three consecutive nights. They made me a member of the club, 
and the first man I spoke to was the son of Lieutenant Maury, 
who wTote ' The Physical Geography of the Sea,' the first book 
that interested me in natural science. Maury is a Virginian. 
The people in the club gave me that genial welcome which 
Southerners can give. And the ladies were not behind. A 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

deputation came to ask me to name an hour for a reception at 
the Women's Club, and it was a function ! There were women 
from New Orleans, women from Georgia, women from South 
Carolina, and, the best and proudest of all, from Virginia. I 
found a dais erected in the club room, on which I was expected to 
stand and speak. I pointed out that I had come expecting the 
ladies to speak to me, and now it appeared that I had to speak 
to them! I do not remember what I said, but we seemed to get 
on all right. The lectures were given at Richmond College, and 
did well. The Governor of the State was there each night, and 
vast and enthusiastic audiences. When Kathleen reads this it 
will interest her to know that the success of the Spiral Nebula 
was tremendous. A man came up afterwards and said: 'Sir, 
I knew you as a man of science, but I never before knew you 
were so admirable an artist.' Those white threads, you see, 
escaped his attention. 

" I was taken to the ' Constitutional Conference ' to hear a 
debate on the election of judges. I would like to try and give 
you an imitation of one orator. What it was like, you may 
imagine from the sly remark made to me by the President, next 
to whom I had the honour of sitting : ' Some of them seem to 
think it is the thunder that kills and not the lightning ! ' 

" The Court House in Richmond where the meetings were held 
is in a park abounding in fine grey squirrels. I bought a pocket 
full of pea-nuts, and the squirrels swarmed to me, taking them 
freely from my hands and even running up my legs. People are 
at last learning that more pleasure can be had from these wild 
creatures by making friends with them than by shooting them. 
Seton Thompson, who is here lecturing with the greatest success, 
is doing a very useful work in teaching this. 

" To-night I give the thirty-fourth lecture. I got to this 
country six weeks ago yesterday, and I leave in the Saxonia on 
January i ith. The rush has at least had the effect of qualifying 
me to enjoy to the uttermost an afternoon like the present. 

" My next letter must resume at Chicago." 

" Cedar Falls, Iowa, 

,, -, -^ ''December, igoi. 

My dear Family, ^ ^ 

" I write this in a very comfortable hotel at a table near a 
window, and outside the next window stands a thermometer 
which an hour ago showed 

Twenty-two degrees below zero. 
Now, 9.30 A.M. with a bright sun shining it is much milder, only 
20° below zero. The night before last the temperature was 40°. 
In twenty-four hours it had fallen 50°. I am glad to have had the 
opportunity of seeing and feeling what such a condition is like. 


Visits to Canada and United States 

"I knew it was getting cool yesterday, but on arrival here 
at five last evening I was certainly astonished to hear the 
temperature was lo^ below zero. Further, I had the not very 
comforting assurance that the lecture was to be given two miles 
out of town, but that the hall could be reached by electric cars. 
The experience of the night was certainly a most unusual one, 
as I shall proceed to describe. 

"I have been overwhelmed with attentions in other places, 
some of which I shall have to describe, but on this occasion, owing 
to the circumstances of the lecture (it being to the State Normal 
School), nobody seems to have thought it his business to 
look after me. The lanternist, however, who was professor of 
chemistry at the place where I had lectured the night before, most 
kindly came douTi to the station and met me in the dark, and 
showed me the way to Burr's Hotel, a very neat, clean and cheap 
place. The professor and I had our ' supper,' beefsteak, with 
brandy cherries, some mysterious but quite nice salad, hot wheat 
cakes and maple syrup, and coffee. Then I got myself ready 
and we started for the tramcar, which passed the comer. There 
was a biting wind, but it was only a few steps, and there was 
some attempt at heating the tram by electricity. WTien we 
reached the school there were two hundred yards or so to walk 
up the avenue. There w^s a temble wind, and even two hundred 
yards in such a wind at a temperature of 15° is no joke, especi- 
ally when I was not well prepared for it, though I had one com- 
forter on. 'Take care of your ears,' shouted my guide, 'they 
may be frostbitten even in this bit.' For observe that owing to 
the rain twenty-four hours before, followed by this awful frost, 
the path was so slippery that I could only walk slowly. I 
huddled up my coat about my ears, and twice my hat blew off 
(of course I should have had a cap), but my kind guide recovered 
it each time. My ears were safe, but my hands, and esj^ecially 
the damaged little finger, were quite numbed by the time I 
reached the building. For once I could have found use for my 
buffalo coat. Even labourers in the streets often wear handsome 
fur overcoats. Once in, the warmth of the house was very ac- 
ceptable. The lecture \\^s the only depressing function I have 
had. I believe I was in good form, as good as ever. The audi- 
ence was of young men and women who are being educated by 
the State as teachers, but from first to last I utterly failed to make 
them attend as audiences attend elsewhere. I did my level best, 
but it was flogging a dead horse all the time. Soon after I began, 
they looked about and yawned and whispered, and so it continued, 
except that none of them went to sleep. It seemed to me as if 
they were usually lectured to death, and made up their minds 
from the first that they would be awfully bored. The lanternist, 
who has had much experience, and who worked for me the night 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

before, told me he never saw such a set. I have had several 
lectures to school or college audiences before, but they were 
always most exhilarating and went splendidly. Then follows 
the strangest part. After the lecture is over I am usually 
crowded with kind hosts and offers of attention and people who 
come to tell me of this, that, and the other. On this occasion 
neither the president of the school nor one of its professors, 
teachers or students, not one human being came to speak to me, 
which, considering the night and the difficulties of getting back, 
was scarcely even human treatment. The only two individuals 
were the lanternist and the night watchman with a lantern, both 
of whom were as kind as possible. Then the problem was how 
to get home. The temperature was down another five degrees 
or so, and the trams only passed at very irregular intervals, and 
to wait down at the end of the avenue for the tram would, I 
believe, have finished me off in five minutes in that awful cold, 
though the wind had somewhat lessened ; and I could not risk 
walking home on account of the danger of slipping. The 
lanternist had ordered the only vehicle in the place to come out 
at eleven and bring back his traps, and so I arranged to travel 
back with the cylinders and him. Not till eleven-thirty did he 
appear. I was beginning to make up my mind to sleep on 
the chairs in the lecture theatre, but at last an extraordinary 
conveyance, something like an old Dublin inside-car on four 
wheels, drove up to the door. I had got on my cap this time 
and tied the comforter over it and my ears, so I was all 
right with a pair of gloves on. After driving out of the way 
to another house, the man stopped and said we had better get 
out and go in here as there had to be a wait of a quarter of an 
hour, and we should be frozen in the car. We asked why, and 
the only explanation forthcoming was that he had promised to 
pack a box for a man and bring it to the station. We huddled 
into the hall of a small house, which was warm as all these houses 
are. At last the box appeared and we started again, the big gas 
cylinders rolling about in the vehicle with ominous bangs, and a 
torrent of ' pen-knives ' pouring in at an open window in the front 
of the vehicle. We drove to the station where the gas and lantern 
were to be deposited, and then came the real trial of the evening, 
and the greatest trial of my life! The lanternist, ever kindness 
itself, insisted on sending me on to the hotel and walking back 
himself so as not to delay me while he was 'checking' (do you 
understand Americanese ?) his traps. He stood out in the middle 
of the road and shouted out to the driver, at a temperature of 
fifteen degrees below zero, and without the slightest consideration 
for my feelings, the following awful words : 


Visits to Canada and United States 

" Oliver Wendell Holmes says that the first time a man hears 
himself described as 'old' he receives a terrible shock, and this 
last blow was indeed crushing. The inexplicable part is that, 
notwithstanding the narrow escape of my ears in a blizzard, not- 
withstanding t±ie atrocious stupidity of the students, and the 
fiendish cruelty of the professors, notwithstanding that in the 
valley of the Mississippi I for the first time heard myself publicly 
described as an old man, I arrived at the hotel in a shocking 
state of good humour, good spirits, and mental contentment, 
and presently, tucked in a cosy bed with the thermometer going 
to the dickens outside, I slept the sleep of the just! 

" But I have. got out of order. I was so full of my last night's 
experiences that I began with them, whereas I should have begun 
with Wednesday, December lith, when I went to Chicago. I 
reached this wonderful place at 6.30 in the morning, where at 
Hyde Park Station I found Robert's friend, Mr. Horatio Wait, 
Master in Chancery, awaiting me with a carriage. He drove me 
to his house in the suburbs at a place where some sixty years 
ago the buffalo roamed and the Red Indians scalped each 
other, but now full of avenues having magnificent houses and 
spacious grounds round them, the effect of which is greatly 
enhanced by the absence of walls and railings. This is indeed 
noticeable everywhere. About noon w-e started off to the Quad- 
feingle Club, where I was to be entertained by Professor James, 
and the Dean and the professors of the great University of 
Chicago, endowed with untold millions by Rockefeller. This was 
quite a function, and the names of the guests were announced in 
the papers beforehand. I sat on the right of the host, and next 
me was Professor Hall, my astronomical friend. There was also 
another Professor Hall, a professor of Latin, who knows many 
Cambridge people, and there was a professor of sociology and a 
professor of neurology, not to mention the more ordinary sub- 
jects. Of course, my health was proposed, and I had to respond, 
and then there was much general and pleasant chat. One pro- 
fessor told of some Englishman, who when a Chicagoan boasted 
that the visitor would be shovvTi a city fifty years old with a 
million inhabitants, said he would much rather see a city a 
million years old with fifty inhabitants ! At Chicago co-education 
flourishes. The number of girls in the University is increasing 
rapidly. They recently captured most of the prizes. 'Never 
mind,' cried an undergraduate, ' let the girls take the prizes, 
we'll take the girls, and so it will be all right.' After my even- 
ing lecture I went to the station and boarded the sleeper for 
the fourth consecutive night, refusing I know not how many in- 
vitations to dine and stay, and what not, and also an invitation 
to a lunch to be given by the ' Tech.' students now in Chicago in 
honour of Robert's father. 

w 337 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

"After an excellent night's sleep I woke pretty early, and in 
the early light I had my first look at the Mississippi, and indeed 
it was not without some emotion that I saw the Father of Waters. 
I don't think that my first sight of the Nile (even if I ever 
get it) will fetch me so much as my early morning glimpse of 
this majestic stream of America. My destination was Davenport, 
a little towTi on the great river. It is resolved to grow into a 
mighty city. One of the first questions I was asked was : ' Had 
I ever heard of Davenport before ? ' Such an awful question. Of 
course I hadn't ! I didn't even know then that Quaker Oats were 
made thereabouts (5,000 barrels daily). Even if I had known 
of this title to fame it would hardly have done to mention it, 
for my most kind host, a lawyer, has started in opposition 
' Eureka Oats ' with which he intends to whip the Quakers. 

" He came to meet me. The top story of his house is a museum 
of archaeology, chiefly Mexican and Indian prehistoric remains, 
and it contains other objects of interest. He and his wife made 
me so comfortable, and gave me what I specially wished and 
asked for, an absolutely quiet day. There were torrents of 
sleet and rain, so there was little inducement to go out. I 
spent half the day in reading Booker Washington's life, a 
most interesting book ; ' Up from Slavery ' is the title. Then 
we had the Unitarian minister to lunch, and a great discussion 
about ' University Extension,' wihich seems to flourish in this 
country. I was then glad to go back to the study and have 
a doze. At dinner there was a large party to meet me, and 
I was introduced to Mrs. Putnam, who, as she told me, was the 
only lady president of an academy in the world. And then the 
heinousness of my ignorance about Davenport stood confessed, 
for this ladies' academy has great collections, and publishes 
transactions which are exchanged with all the societies abroad, 
and this in the Wild and ' Woolly ' West : for it will be remem- 
bered I had crossed the Mississippi. I have refused, had to 
refuse, many pleasant invitations, but the most heart-breaking 
refusal occurred here. In the Mississippi here is an ' island ' of 
1,000 acres, I believe. The greater part of this is literally in a 
primaeval condition, for the whole island belongs to the Govern- 
ment and they use part of it for an arsenal. But on the rest 
a superb golf course has been laid out. Just imagine my feelings 
at having to say 'No! ' to a proposal to play golf on an island 
still in a state of Nature and lying in the Mississippi ! 

" My lecture at Davenport had been organised by the Press 
Club. There was a splendid house, and after the lecture the 
inevitable ' reception ' followed. The newspaper element is a 
strong one here in all the towns. Many of the journalists and 
editors begin by being compositors. I was presented gener- 
ally to a room full of Democrats and Republicans, silver men 


Visits to Canada and United States 

and hard money men, proprietors, editors, compositors, and for 
ought I know newsvendors as well. 

■* Bright people, most of them, full of talk and life, and all 
young. Everybody is young over here. Indeed, I sometimes 
pray, ' Give me back, give me back, the wild freshness of mom- 
mg,' that I might begin again in this wonderful country. But 
probably our own is not too bad. 

" I have been travelling all day in a temperature of 20° or 
less. Please observe that is 52° of frost as we count it. Even 
in the North-West that is considered cold, yet I think very 
likely there is more suffering from cold in England than here. 
Every railway carriage, every waiting-room is most comfortably 
warm. In the houses all the doors stand open, and the warmth is 
abundant and under control. Fires are rarely seen, and even 
when they are it is more for show, as the needful heat is supplied 
by the inevitable hot air from furnace or pipes. 

"If, my dears, you value this scrawl at all, then you must 
thank the thermometer rather than your husband and father. The 
trains are late, and I am beguiling the hours by scribbling these 
words with the stump of a pencil about as long as my nail. The 
little wayside station is named Albert Lea, and it lies out in the 
middle of the prairie, or, rather, what was the prairie, but has 
now been broken up with innumerable homesteads, each with its 
comfortable farmhouse, each with its windmill for pumping 
water. For many hundreds of miles all round, this flat rich 
land extends, and I believe there is great prosperity among the 
farmers. This is the country which we used to see offered in 
blocks of one hundred acres to each settler who would come here. 
The land which used to be bought for a dollar an acre is now 
worth twenty or fifty times as much. 

" I ought to say that the glorious sunshine has brightened 
up the whole day, and now that the wind has ceased the 
weather outside seems most agreeable, and except that the 
visible breath extends about six feet at each expiration, there is 
nothing obviously differ«it from a very sharp and clear frosty 
day at home. Robert, however, cautioned me not to try long 
walks under these circumstances, and I am obeying him, though 
if it were not for the slipperiness a brisk walk this brilliant after- 
noon looks very tempting. Everyone here takes a profound 
interest in the thermometer. In the place where I am now it was 
30° below zero last night. I am told this will not last longer 
than a few days. It was foretold. The weather prophets an- 
nounced it twenty-four hours ere it came, so that all had their 
furnaces put into good order to fight the foe when it arrived. I 
am now (Saturday) on my way to Minneapolis, the great city 
where the flour of the world is made. 

"A German here, who tells me he was a professor at Halle, 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

has just spoken to me to say how much he and others were inter- 
ested in the lecture last night. I asked him what he thought of 
the audience generally, and he says the girls are for the most 
part farmers' daughters who come up to the Normal School to 
be trained as teachers, and that they know nothing whatever, and 
that they care about nothing except getting a certificate which 
will enable them to teach school and then catch a husband, so 
it was satisfactory to have this confirmation. The Christy 
Minstrels would have been more to their taste than ' Time and 
Tide.' Though I say it, the lecture in its present form is really 
a good one, as I have abundance of the best evidence, so it is 
satisfactory to learn from this man that my effort was not alto- 
gether thrown away. The dollars, however, were paid all right. 

" I don't seem to be picking up many good American stories. 
The fact is, I see very little of their newspapers, and I cannot 
say I admire them. I believe I am honoured with occasional 
notice, but as I am generally away from the place I don't see 
them. I got a piece of good advice the other day. ' You need 
never mind,' said my friend, ' what you say to a newspaper 
reporter. He will put down whatever suits him, and in any 
case nobody will believe for a moment that you said what he 
represents you as saying, so it is clearly a w^ste of valuable truth 
for you to expend any of it on him.' 

"My next letter will take up the parable from Minneapolis." 

" The West, 

"Minneapolis, Minn., 
''December i6ihy 1901. 
*' En route Pennsylvania, Limited, 
Pullman Vestibuled Train. 
"My dear Family, 

"The temperature has gone up at a bound. From being 
between 20° and 30° below zero, it has gone up to zero to-day. 
This is regarded as warmth here ; in fact, so much so that the 
town of Minneapolis has been excited to-day over a mad dog! 
We were hurriedly turned back from a street we were entering 
by the intelligence that a dog was running amok, and had bitten 
two men already. I did not see the dog, but one of my escort 
of two did. My anxieties during the day were not so much 
to keep out of the way of the dog as to keep myself right end 
up, for the walks, I need hardly say, are very slippery. I have 
become Americanised to the extent of a pair of * rubbers,' and I 
shall put them on to-night as they are said to lessen the risk of 
a fall. 

"When I was a boy attending Dr. Burke's school in North 
Great George's Street, Dublin, herds of wild buffalo used to 
resort to the Mississippi to drink. On the spot where those 


Visits to Canada and United States 

buffalo quenched their thirst now stands this fine city of Minnea- 
polis with 200,000 people! It is the twin of the city of St. 
Paul, on the other side of the river. There is great rivalry be- 
tween these two cities. Indeed, it is stated that the use of the 
New Testament has been forbidden in the schools of Minneapolis 
because that city is not mentioned in Holy Writ, while St. Paul 
is I These great cities of the mighty North-West are mainly 
devoted to flour and timber. The timber industry ceases in the 
winter owing to the frost ; so I went to see the former. I spent 
a couple of hours in the mightiest flour mill on earth, Pillsbury's, 
where the daily output is 12,000 barrels. We vrere received by an 
imposing ' guide ' covered with medals like the Lion King at the 
circus. But a refined ear detected the brogue, the genus being 
Irish, the species Dublin, and the variety Kingstown. He and I 
discussed King O'Toole and Glendalough on the way up in the 
lift. The place is truly astounding. The flour goes through 
fourteen processes before ' Pillsbury's best ' is reached. 

" Nothing has amazed me more in this country than the Uni- 
versities. Every State has its University, and the endowments 
flow in millions, while even in such a remote place as Minneapolis 
the students are counted in thousands. The valley of the Missis- 
sippi must in time become one of the greatest centres of popu- 
lation the world has ever known. The winter weather is delight- 
ful. All day there is a brilliant sun, and the air is so bright and 
invigorating that it stimulates work and exercise of every kind — 
of brain no less than of body. It is hard to believe that for the 
last week the temperature has hardly ever been so much as zero, 
5" or 10^ below zero in the mornings, and only a few degrees 
above at midday. Mind, I mean zero Fahrenheit, so that when 
I read in the paper that the temperature in London is 50°, that 
means it is 60° higher than it is generally in the mornings here. 
But no one seems to suffer from cold, though occasionally people 
are seen wearing ear muffs. If there is much wind your ears 
may become frozen before you know it. But you will know all 
about it in due time ! Except for occasional slipperiness (I have 
been down twice already) the winter is truly glorious, and in- 
finitely better than the summer. I do not wonder at the Ameri- 
cans' love of their magnificent country ; ' God's o\^ti Country,' it 
is called, and each State is so proud. * I am an Iowa girl,' says 
one, ' and I am proud of it,' and another dark-eyed beauty will 
say, ' And I am from Louisiana,' and looks even prouder still, 
cmd well indeed they may be. 

"But to my narrative. I had now reached the furthest point 
of my travels. There is, alas! a sad want of proportion between 
the size of the United States and the length of human life. I 
should like, indeed, to have gone just another 1,800 miles to 
California. They tell me that in one night you pass from the 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

frost-bound country all around us here into a paradise of birds 
and flowers. But I had to face eastward ; so after my lecture 
was over I went 'on board ' the Pullman, and was soon asleep. 

" In these frosts the trains have been greatly delayed. Even 
though the water may not actually freeze in the boiler, some of 
the outside pipes may go wrong, and, in any case, it is not easy 
to keep up the necessary temperature when the thermometer is 
about 60° below the average temperature of the year ; whatever 
the reason, we are very late; but at last on Tuesday morning, 
December 17th, about 11 A.M., I looked out of the window and 
saw Geneva Lake, while bright and glorious in the lovely sun- 
light stood the Yerkes Observatory ! * 

" Professor Hale, the director, was waiting for me with a 
carriage and pair. After driving over what was probably in 
some sort a road, but which seemed to me like a mixture of open 
country and snow drifts, we reached his house. The site is 
indeed superb. It stands near a lake about as large as the 
greatest of the Ki Harney lakes. Around the shores of this lake 
are the palatial summer houses of Chicago millionaires. Mrs. 
Hale was away with her children in Chicago (I saw her after- 
wards), but a man and his wife, who also belong to the Observa- 
tory staff, keep house for Professor Hale. 

" As soon as I had removed some of the stains of travel, we 
went to the Observatory. It is indeed a wonderful place. They 
can make anything there from an eye-piece to a ten thousand- 
dollar telescope. The mighty instrument, covered by a dome as 
big as the dome of St. Paul's (to be strictly accurate it is five feet 
less in diameter), is worked by electricity. The whole floor, 
which is seventy -five feet across, glides up and down to corre- 
spond with the telescope, so that there is no clambering up and 
down ladders. 

" I received a warm greeting from my very valued friend 
Professor Barnard. There, too, I saw Professor Frost and 
others. Professor Hale seems to have the great gift of discerning 
likely and promising young men. 

" The evening was fine. I had gone with such protection as 
I could get from a temperature of 42° of frost, as we should 
call it. It was one of Barnard's nights. He has three nights a 
week with the great telescope, the other nights being allotted to 
other observers. We found what looked like a moving cylinder 
of fur coats within the axis of which the great Barnard was to 
be found moving about, running as briskly up and down as if he 
were playing football. Indeed, he had need to be well clad, 

* The Yerkes Observatory, which is the observatory of the University of 
Chicago, is situated at Williams Bay, on the shore of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, 
about 100 miles from Chicago. It was richly endowed by the late Mr. Charles T. 
Yerkes, the Chicago " street-car" magnate. 


Visits to Canada and United States 

for that night he wxDrked from five in the evening till six in the 
morning. The man who works the mechanical parts is called 
Sullivan, and it did not seem hard to guess where he must have 
come from ! I spent a couple of hours there, and I saw some 
nebulae, superb objects well calculated to show the unique power 
of this instrument. Once before I spent a night observing with 
the thermometer at zero. It was at Lord Rosse's, in the great 
frost of 1866. But I thought a couple of hours enough at pre- 
sent, and so I went back to Professor Hale's, where, as usual, I 
slept with little more than a sheet over me. 

" The next day — last Wednesday it was, but it seems a month 
ago — I spent looking at photographs and many other objects at 
the Observatory. The new star has now developed into a 
nebula, and the portions of the nebula, which are flying off with 
the velocity of light, are actually shown in these photos. At pre- 
sent the matter is not understood ; but I do not think I have ever 
heard of anything in astronomy which has astonished me so 
much. Here I may remark on Marconi's wonderful success in 
sending his messages across the Atlantic. From what he told me 
last June it did not in the least surprise me. 

"Then dawned Thursday, the 19th, another lovely day. I 
think I ought to draw a veil over the proceedmgs of this day, or 
at least the first part of it, for I allowed the base animal and 
ferocious instincts of my nature to have full licence. It had been 
settled a week before that this forenoon was to be devoted to see- 
ing the sights of Chicago, and my intellectual friends had pro- 
posed to take me to the Art Gallery, where some wonderful 
Russian pictures were exhibited. But I put my foot down. ' I 
will not,' I said, ' waste my precious time in Chicago in going 
to see pictures, Russian or otherwise.' Then they suggested a 
visit to the libraries. ' I am sick of libraries,' I said. Then they 
proposed to show me over the new buildings of the University. 
* Bother the University,' was what I indicated in, I hope, more 
civil language. ' What, then, will you see ? ' said the intellectual 
circle around me. I said : ' I will look at nothing but 


If you could have seen the look of horror and disgust at this 
brutish announcement! One fine old gentleman, a Scotsman, 
Mr. Geddes, a grand old laird with an estate in Scotland and a 
great business in Chicago, shouted out : * And I will take you 
there!' Thus it was all arranged; so at 10 A.M. on Thursday 
a carriage and pair drew up, and my good friend came out. 
' Are you ready ? Are you quite sure you will be able to stand 
it .-* Have you stout nerves ? ' were questions I readily answered 
in the affirmative, and so I started in much the same frame of 
expectation as an ancient Roman would set out for a pleasant 

'^ < -1 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

afternoon at the Colosseum. I think I must withhold details as 
to the establishment where 40,000 hogs and a corresponding 
number of cattle are daily slaughtered. If I went into particulars, 
some of my readers might not have at hand what I heard after- 
wards Mr. Geddes had brought, in case I needed it — a flask of 
whisky, but I insisted on seeing every detail and flinched not, 
nor did I blench, so as to call for the production of the whisky. 
I shall not forget the sights of that morning, and I will tell 
it all to any of you, my dears, who may desire further informa- 

"Having seen how the beef and bacon of the wx)rld are pro- 
vided, I was next taken to the * Board of Trade,' where on a 
great floor are three small ' pits.' In each of these pits an 
eager, noisy crowd was assembled. They seemed to act like 
maniacs. I stood at the brink of one pit which appeared to be 
the liveliest. In that the 'wheat' business is done. My friend 
Mr. Geddes said, ' Now look here ' ; he called out some words ; 
instantly the crowd of eager faces turned towards him, in a 
moment the thing was done ; he had sold 10,000 bushels of wheat. 
The smallest quantity ever sold there is 5,000 bushels, and 
millions are dealt in daily. The second of the pits is devoted to 
bacon. But do not think you can go there to buy a few rashers 
for your breakfast ! By a nod or a wave of the fingers you sell 
or buy 5,000 barrels. You cannot do less, for that is the smallest 
unit. The third ' pit ' was devoted to Indian corn. The din was 
deafening. It was as if the very life of each man depended on 
the transactions passing. Here as elsew^here I noticed how young 
the men are who are engaged in vast businesses. 

" Professor Hale called to take me off to see a very rich man 
who is very anxious to immortalise himself in the same manner 
as Mr. Lick has done by building a great observatory. The 
owner of the millions is, however, hesitating on the brink, but 
Hale said he thought if I would raise my voice the thing would 
be done. I told him that I had no confidence whatever in the 
adequacy of my powers of persuasion, and I must say it was with 
some relief I learned the old gentleman was ill and could not be 

" You have all heard of the wonderful buildings of Chicago, 
but the strangest of all that I have seen belongs to the Hale 
family, and I was taken through it yesterday. It is fourteen 
stories high, and from top to bottom it is fitted out for doctors* 
consulting rooms. Now mark my words. In that one building 
two hundred and thirty doctors do business. Some doctors 
have suites, others have single rooms, and many have a room on 
the Box and Cox principle, each having it for one hour or two 
hours. Each room is provided with every convenience in the 
way of chairs and the like. Each doctor has a locker in the 


Visits to Canada and United States 

room he uses in which to keep his instruments. There are in some 
cases reception rooms common to four different consulting rooms, 
so arranged that the patient can pass out and away from the 
doctor without returning through the reception room. The 
rents vary from £'^,0 a year for one room, one hour a day, up- 
wards. They have far more applications for rooms than they 
can supply, and to judge from the crowded state of the elevators 
a lively business is done. One floor belongs to the dentists. 
Over the way is a similar building with one hundred and fifty 
doctors, and close by is yet another with a hundred more. 

" The next step was to call and make the personal acquaint- 
ance of Professor Burnham. Doubtless, my dears, you all know 
that he is the greatest double star observer now living. We saw 
him in his office, a man about sixty-five, with ready talk and 
keen glance. We talked much and long of his discoveries and 
work, and then of many other things, and then he took us to 
lunch at an Italian restaurant, and the ' lunch ' proved to be a 
very ample dinner. Then I had just time for a brief visit to the 
Western Electric Company Works, where Judge Wait's son is 
employed, and where the telephone apparatus for the wxDrld is 
made. I was specially interested in the wonderful automatic 
machines which do the most complicated pieces of work, now 
turning up one cut of a piece of brass, putting a screw on it, and 
drilling a hole in it, and then putting forth a pair of iron 
fingers which carry the piece to another part of the machine, turn 
it round, and so place it that it can be acted upon by other 
cutters, and finished at the other end. One man can tend seven 
of these machines. 

"I am now nearing Philadelphia, and from thence I go to 
Haverford, Pa., to stay with Brown till Christmas Day, when 
I give my fortieth lecture. 

" I have had a great time indeed, but I am still heartily glad 
to think that no more than three weeks now remain before I sail 
for home." 

"(New York, New Haven and 

Hartford Railway, en route for 

Waterbury, where they make the 


"Saturday, January 4th, 1902. 
"Dearest Family, 

" The last collective letter was, I think, written on December 
2 1 St, when I was on my way in the 'Pennsylvania Limited,' a 
wonderful train from Chicago to Philadelphia, so now I shall try 
to give some account of myself from that time up to the present 
day, just one week before I sail for home. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

" I went to Philadelphia with the object of spending my 
Christmas with Mr. Brown and his sister, but I need not tell you 
that though they were as kind as possible and gave me a very 
pleasant time, yet my heart was with all the dear ones at 
home, and the only time which I have had occasion to use the 
'code' was to cable you all a very merry Christmas. 

" On Christmas morning I went to church. Mr. Brown ap- 
peared in the choir, and at one o'clock we had our Christmas 
dinner of turkey and plum pudding. There were two other 
guests, both English. First, Miss Scott, who has been for twelve 
years head professor of mathematics at Bryn Mawr Ladies' Col- 
lege. She is from Newnham or Girton, and she has really won- 
derful mathematical ability. The other guest was Miss Smith, 
who is the matron of the hospital at Philadelphia. There were a 
threepenny-bit and a ring and a button in the plum pudding. 
The button came to Miss Smith, the 3d. to Miss Scott, and the 
ring to me. I rather think Mr. Brown, who helped, adjusted 
the affair. 

"The next day, Boxing Day, December 26th, I spent in New 
York. It is a nice trip from where Major Pond lives across the 
Hudson River to New York. The city is so beautifully clean and 
bright. There is absolutely no smoke. The domestic fire must 
be of wood or of anthracite, but, generally speaking, it does not 
exist, the heating being done by the furnace in the basement, from 
which great tubes carry the external air duly warmed into the 
different rooms. Over the city there are numerous jets of steam 
from the engines, but these are not unpleasing. The only smoke 
I have seen here I saw to-day, but that w^as from a house on fire ; 
not only was there smoke from the house, but there was still 
more from the fire engines. They are allowed to burn cannel 
coal, and wonderfully efficient they are. The fire was put out in 
no time. New York is certainly one of the sights of the world. 
It is spreading and growing in such a marvellous manner, and the 
continual sunshine makes it look its best. In the up-town, the 
newer residential part, the most gorgeous palaces of flats and 
' apartment houses,* as they call them, are springing up. You 
can have no idea of the architectural splendours of these, and as 
to the Waldorf -Astor Hotel, it is about as much more splendid 
than the Langham, as the Langham is more splendid than the 
'Bull.' I have not been in it, for it is said to be desperately 
expensive. I was asked to a great banquet there of the English- 
American Society, at which all the great orators were heard, and 
there were 500 guests, but unhappily I was engaged elsewhere, 
and had to decline. On the evening of Boxing Day I went 
to dine with Mr. and Mrs. Seton-Thompson. He is the author 
of 'Wild Animals I have Known,' and other books, and has had 
a great career as a lecturer. He is an Englishman from Canada. 


Visits to Canada and United States 

The dinner was given in their beautiful flat, about ten stories up. 
There were many people there to whom I talked with much 
pleasure, especially Mr. Madisofi Grant, the Secretary of the 
new Zoological Gardens, which has just been started here on a 
magnificent scale. There were also New York notables, Mr. and 
Mrs. Scimuel Vintermeyer, who afterwards invited me to dine at 
their house in Fifth Avenue; but this invitation, as well as one 
or two others, which w^ould have brought me into the very heart 
of the elect, I was obliged to decline. On Friday, 27th, I carried 
my bag to the cars from Major Pond's, went thence to the Ferry, 
thence across to New York, and then to the Murray Hill Hotel, a 
very nice place indeed, though it does not possess the glories of 
the Waldorf-Astor. I had arranged with Brown and Morley and 
Harkness to stay there for the 27th and 28th, so as to be able to 
attend the annual meeting of the Mathematical Society. This 
was to be held at the Columbia University, which is four or five 
miles away, though still in New York. It has a magnificent site 
on the bank of the Hudson River, which they tell me here rivals 
the Rhine in beauty, though, so far as my recollection of the 
Rhine goes, this is hardly the case. It is a splendid institution. 
The late president, Mr. Seth Low, himself built a library at a 
cost of ;;6^200,ooo, and innumerable other gifts have recently 
flowed in. Some anonymous person lately endowed a professor- 
ship of Chinese. The Chinese authorities were so much pleased 
that they are sending a collection of Chinese books and specimens 
as a donation to start the new Faculty of Chinese, and you will 
be interested to hear that Professor Giles has been asked, and 
has consented, to come out and give some opening lectures on 
the subject. 

" But we merely went to the Columbia University as the most 
convenient place for the mathematical meeting. It lasted morn- 
ing and evening for two days. I had my talk on Screws on the 
first day to a large and attentive audience. I listened to many 
of the papers. Miss Scott gave one of the very best, and did it 
admirably. It is astonishing to see the vigour with which mathe- 
matics is cultivated in this country. The most modern depart- 
ments find eager followers here, and I was greatly delighted at 
the large number of men who could get up and speak intelligently 
on the most advanced subjects. 

" I had long talks with Professor Williams, the geologist, and 
vrith Professor Gibbs, who has just had the Copley Medal given 
him. The chief attraction at New Haven is found in the wonder- 
ful palaeontological collection. I had seen it before with Pro- 
fessor Marsh seventeen years ago. There is the most astonishing 
skeleton of a Claosaurus, a stupendous reptile as big as a rhino- 
ceros, who sat on his hind legs and ate from his paws like 
a squirrel. There he is, limbs and hands all complete. There 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

are other wonders also. A portion of the sea bottom of the 
Silurian Period has been shown by dissolving away the lime, 
when all the organic remains have been replaced by silica. It is 
impossible to conceive the delicacy and wonder of this relic of 
the most early sea bottom. Then there are the wonderful foot- 
prints of the great Dinosaur, which walked like a bird. The place 
where he sat down is shown, and the marks of his skin, and then 
the marks where he put his front paws down to help him up 
again make a wonderfully realistic picture. Professor Beecher, 
who has done all these things, is a great artist. 

" I made a good beginning of the New Year by a very early 
start on January ist. The object was to get from New Haven to 
New York in time to hear a lecture from Mr. Seton-Thompson 
on ' Animals I have Known,' which was given in the Carnegie 
Hall at 1 1 A.M. Major Pond sent me six tickets for a private 
box, with the intimation that the next box was to be occupied by 
Mark Twain! I sent five of the tickets on to the Goodbodys, 
and some of them turned up. I was duly introduced to Mark 
Twain. He is a most striking-looking man, and we had a nice 
little talk. I told him how fond we were of ' Mr. Bixby.' * 
There was a large attendance at the lecture, mostly children. 
The photographs of the bears as they may be familiarly met in 
the Yellowstone Park were very interesting. Individuals are well 
known, and ' Old Fatty ' and ' Little Johnny ' appeared to be 
great favourites with the audience. Then there was the ' Tragedy 
of Lobo, the King Wolf,' which is really fine. I was glad to 
have been there. 

"Friday, January 3rd, was a red-letter day from the geologi- 
cal point of view, for Professor Osborne had promised to take 
me over the magnificent collection of fossil vertebrates in the 
New York Museum. The fossils which have come from Colorado 
have thrown astounding light on evolution. I will here mention 
only two things. We have often been told that the rhinoceros and 
the horse are akin. I now find no difficulty in believing this, for 
he has shown us a fossil animal with many characters of the 
rhinoceros and the grace and agility of a horse. Then he has 
the skeleton of a Brontosaurus, which is over seventy feet long, 
a terrestrial or semi-aquatic animal. But what interested me 
specially was that several of the vertebrae have been gnawed and 
bitten, and there are the marks of the teeth of some carnivorous 
Dinosaur of the period. Even the Brontosaurus had enemies. 
Life is a great tragedy ! 

" I start for Detroit to-night. I hope to catch a flying glimpse 
of Niagara in the morning. Maybe I shall write one more letter, 
but this day week I shall be on the ocean." 

♦ The pilot who taught Mark Twain on the Mississippi. 

Visits to Canada and United States 

" One hour from Pittsburg 

TOWARDS New York, 

''January 9//;, 1902. 

^^ En route Pennsylvania^ Limited ^ 
Pullman Vestibuled Train. 
"My dear Family, 

"This is the last of the collective letters, and I fear they 
have been a very dull series and have given only a very in- 
adequate view of the intensely full and interesting eleven weeks 
of my American wanderings. I shall now resume my account 
from last Sunday, when I had some five or six hours of quiet 
in the Century Club at New York, 

''Sunday, January ^th, 1902, at 6 P.M., I started again 
to the West for the eleventh and last week of my lectures. 
I reached Detroit, at the end of Lake Erie (look at your map, 
please), at midday. Of course at this season the lakes are 
so far frozen that navigation is impossible. In the summer 
the steamers form, I am told, the most delightful means of get- 
ting about this lake district ; only remember the lakes are almost 
as large as good-sized kingdoms. I was told that more tonnage 
passed through the river at Detroit than in all the seaports of 
the United States put together. This astonishing statement is 
made true by the mighty traffic in iron ores brought from Lake 
Superior down to Pittsburg to the wonderful Carnegie works, 
of which more anon. I lectured in the Unitarian Chapel, smd 
as soon as the lecture was over I hurried off to the station, for 
I knew it would take me all my time to get to Pittsburg by the 
next evening. 

" I have been obliged to put my foot down as to the things 
I will see, or, rather, as to the things I wont see, and so I 
announced that I had not come to Pittsburg to look at pictures 
or to visit the observatory. ' I will admit at once the excellence 
of the pictures and the renown of the observatory, and so, as I 
require no further conviction on these points, I have come to see 
the fossils in the museum and the great Carnegie works.' The 
day was arranged accordingly. 

" The museum is part of the great institute founded by 
Carnegie. You may imagine what it is wiien I tell you that for 
the superb concert hall a -permanent orchestra of about thirty- 
five is maintained (the conductor is an Irishman), and they have 
just appointed an organist at a salary of 800 pounds a year 
(4,000 dollars). In the museum there is keen rivalry with New 
York and New Haven in the collection of fossils from Wyoming. 
They are shortly to have at Pittsburg the ' Hall of the Dino- 
saurs,' in which is to be the most superb exhibition of these 
monsters. The hind leg of a Brontosaurus is perfect in every 
bone, and as high as the ceiling. He was about ninety feet long. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

A short time ago one of the New York papers announced the 
discovery of one of these huge fossils, and by way of illustrating 
the size of the brute, they gave a picture of a sky-scraping build- 
ing with the leviathan pleasantly peeping in at the tenth story. 
Carnegie tore this out, wrote on the margin, 'Buy this. — A. C.,' 
and sent it to the curator. Instantly the curator started for 
the West, and found that, as it had been discovered by one of 
their men, the University of Wyoming claimed the animal. 
* Name your price,' said the curator, and they made a bolt and 
named a hundred thousand dollars. 'Fiddlesticks,' said the 
curator. Then the curator found that the land in which the 
reptile was entombed was still public land, and he went to the 
Government and bought the claim, including the bones, for a 
trifle. He thought he had done a good stroke, but Carnegie said 
' No, that will not do,' and he bade the curator write to the 
University of Wyoming to the effect that, fearing this wonderful 
treasure should be lost to the public, Mr. Carnegie had bought 
the land, and now presented it to the University. This pro- 
duced the desired effect. The University now also did the polite 
thing, they accepted the gift of the land, but presented the 
bones to Carnegie, with a hint that they were badly in want of 
a library. The curator went back to the site, only to find that 
the geologist of the University had in the meantime made a foray 
and tried to dig out the bones, but so unskilfully that he did not 
get anything of use to him, while he spoiled the beast for any- 
one else, so that, as a local man expressed it, he ' would not 
give fifty cents for the whole blooming outfit ! ' The curator, 
Dr. Holland, told me that there is an immense area, hundreds of 
acres in extent, which contains a stratum of these mighty bones 
many feet in thickness. It seems as if there had been a bar across 
an estuary, down which the carcases floated, and the bones were 
deposited against this bar. They are all in the most hopeless 
confusion, so that specimens that can be of any use have to be 
sought elsewhere, in places where animals have died in conditions 
favourable to their preservation. Truly there were giants on 
the earth in those days ! 

" I could hardly be torn away from these wonderful things, 
and their most interesting curator. Dr. Holland, but Mr. 
Brashear's hints that we had much to do at last prevailed, and 
we went off to Mr. Brashear's house to lunch. First we took a 
look into his works. He makes some of the most perfect prisms 
and mirrors in the world. He has just completed a job for Lord 
Rayleigh of a plane mirror in which there is no deviation more 
than the thirtieth of a wave length, and his business is nourished 
by the fact that he makes the lenses and prisms for the new 
binoculars made by Warner and Swasey. As the latter firm were 
good enough to give me a present of one, I shall bring home in 


Visits to Canada and United States 

this way a specimen of Brashear's work. He made the wonder- 
ful prisms Mr. Newall uses also. Then after lunch, where we 
met his partner and son-in-law, an Irish youth from near Belfast, 
we started for Carnegie's mighty works. There are several works 
in the great steel combine, but I specially chose to see the place 
where steel rails are made, as the automatic machinery has there 
been carried out to the utmost perfection. From the seven great 
blast furnaces where the ore is melted, the molten ore, a blend 
from all the furnaces, is run into the Bessemer converters, each 
holding fifteen tons ; then in twenty minutes it is poured out as 
dazzling melted steel into moulds ; these are carried off at once 
en a railway, the moulds are lifted off, and each mighty ingot, 
which is to make four rails, is tipped on a bed of rollers, which 
take it like a plaything backwards and forwards between power- 
ful rolls, which squeeze it out into double, then it flies along 
without apparent aid as fast as you could run to another place, 
where the ends are cut off and it is cut in half. Then each of 
these halves, still tearing along, is run by the machinery back- 
wards and forwards through the rolls till it is lengthened into the 
rails and a bit over. Then down come mighty saws trimming 
off the ends and cutting the double rail in half ; on it flies to 
another place, where it is straightened, punched with the neces- 
sary holes, and put into a railway truck ready to be taken to 
market. I would have liked to spend hours in this wonderful 
place, where machinery does everything that once entailed human 
labour. A man standing at a bench with a few handles now 
controls these resistless machines. In the old days a man used 
to earn fifteen cents for rolling a ton of rails, now he earns one 
cent a ton, but gets more money than he used to. As I looked 
at the machine I found it easy to imagine where all the Carnegie 
libraries had come from. Night and day (Sundays only ex- 
cepted) this interminable flow of rails goes on, and a correspond- 
ing torrent of dollars flows into the pockets of the owners. The 
various concerns in the mighty steel combine are said to be 
earning at present ;£^6o,ooo a day. 

"After a good-bye to Mr. and Mrs. Brashear, who have been 
most kind, I went back to the hotel. That was last night, and 
I had to make arrangements for an early start this morning. 
I had to leave the hotel at 6.30 to catch this wonderful train, the 
Pennsylvania Limited. I have been a little suspicious of the 
reliability of the people where these early starts are concerned. 
However, they called me all right at 5.45 by the simple dodge 
of ringing the alarm bell at the telephone. I had, however, 
awakened already, and then I had a nice carriage and pair 
to drive me to the station. But the old train was an hour late, 
and now we are an hour or more behind time. I am to lecture 
at Brooklyn to-night, and it will be another tight fit. However, 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

it is not of much importance, and Major Pond will be on the 
spot. I find I have forgotten to mention one point. On my way 
from New York to Detroit the route lay via Niagara, so in the 
early morning we crossed the suspension bridge over the Rapids» 
now containing much floating ice. Thus we paid a visit to Cana- 
dian territory, and then the train stopped, as it always does, 
for five minutes at a terrace over the Falls, just to give us a peep. 
The winter view was interesting, but it is not nearly so good 
as the summer. Of course we cannot get the best view from the 
train, but we saw the wonderful Horseshoe down which the river 
makes its plunge. 

"And now my journey is nearly over. I am hastening to 
New York to sail the day after to-morrow. I give one farewell 
lecture in the afternoon at Columbia University, which will be 
the forty-eighth, and at three the next day the Saxonia sails. 

" I have had a most interesting time ; no very striking adven- 
tures certainly, but have seen much that has been pleasant and 
instructive, if only I can profit by it." 

On his way home he wrote from the s.s. Saxonia to a friend 
on January 14th, 1902 : 

"As I approach the shores of Ireland my first thought is 
as to your mother. The last account I had was a more favour- 
able one, and I hope to have better still when I reach home next 
Monday, as I hope to do. Perhaps I may get a letter at Queens- 

"I have had a glorious eleven weeks. Every moment was full 
of interest, instruction, and entertainment of the highest order. 
Not for one moment did the time drag. It was always the other 
way, trying to get the Atlantic into a quart pot. When I am 
born again in a new sphere I intend to choose (if I have a choice) a 
globe of seven miles in diameter as my abode, so that I shall have 
some opportunity of learning something of my earthly residence. 
There is one thing, however, that I have not seen. I have been 
north as far as New Hampshire, and south as far as Richmond ; 
I have been to the other side of the Mississippi ; I have stayed in 
many houses, in hotels great and hotels poor ; I have been enter- 
tained at dinners, at luncheons, and at receptions large and 
small. I have been in the Universities, the places of business, 
the observatories, the slaughter-houses, in steamers and in Pull- 
man cars. I have shaken hands with many hundreds and spoken 
to many thousands. I have been doing this all the time and all 
day long (and often all night) for eleven weeks in the United 
States — barring two and a half hours in Canada — and yet the 
one thing that I have not seen is an American.' I don't mean 
Red Indians! The American I have not seen is the tall, swagger- 


Visits to Canada and United States 

ing, tobacco-chewing Uncle Sam of the stage and fiction. I have 
met scores of the most charming, well-bred, well-educated and 
cultivated people that this earth can show, but of the dollar- 
worshipping vulgarian that the American is reputed to be at 
home I know nothing, and I certainly could find nothing corre- 
sponding to the description in all my travels. Millionaires, of 
course, there are, poor things ; they cannot help it, and they do 
their best to conceal the offensive nature of their misfortune. 
One of these reprobates will be a diligent Professor of History 
in a University, absorbed in his duties, delighting to render 
help to every scholar and with sympathy in all intellectual work, 
and work that is useful for the country. Another is a man who 
works quietly in his office as a merchant in a back street in New 
York, who delights to take a friend or acquaintance to lunch at 
his club, or to bring him home to dine at an elegant and most 
refined home in Madison Avenue, where he will meet the very 
nicest and best bred people that this world produces. WTiether 
they are rich or not nobody knows or cares, and this same man 
may be silently giving away vast sums that nobody knows of, 
and building a superb Union building in the Columbia Uni- 
versity ! And yet a third. After your lecture is over, a little man 
rather shy, but most courteous, will ask the privilege of help- 
ing you on with your coat, and then propose to show you the way 
over to your hotel a couple of hundred yards distant. He will 
chat simply and frankly, and then give you his card, and say : 
' I run over to Scotland every year, and this is the name of the 
place where I stay.' You look at the card. It bears the name 
of an historic Scottish castle, and is an invitation to the recipient 
for him and his to make that castle his home for as long as he 
likes between July 1st and October 1st! I have here sketched, 
or, rather, indicated the three millionaires whom at this moment 
I recall. They are, I believe, typical of the class ! 

" Carnegie I did not meet,* but I went to see his works. Re- 
cognising that the operations of social and natural causes have 
conspired with his superb individual talents, Carnegie has set an 
example to the millionaires everywhere. The chief amxiety of 
these people in America now seems to be to discover means by 
w^hich they can deplete themselves without harm to the recipients. 
The wealth that is pouring into the universities all over the 
country is one of the consequences. Many times during my stay 
did the universities announce the receipt of millions. President 
Harper, of Chicago University, declared that he intended to 
collect £"10,000,000 for Chicago, and he is in a fair way to 

"In these universities it is not alone the superb equipment and 
the wealthy endowment which strike me as admirable. I was 
* My father met him, some years later, at the opening of the Carnegie Institute. 
X 353 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

still more astonished at the high character of the education 
given. Never again let anyone speak slightingly of the degrees 
of an American university. I speak only of mathematics, and I 
had ample opportunity of judging, for I attended the annual 
gathering of American mathematicians at the Columbia Uni- 
versity of New York. The professors of mathematics are in the 
very forefront of the science. Formerly those who wished to study 
mathematics in its higher departments used to go from America 
to Germany. ' Now they can stay at home and find all they 
want. It was delightful to see a large room filled with young 
men most keenly interested in advanced mathematics. I believe 
the same is equally true in the other departments. In astronomy, 
it goes without saying, there is more work in that science done in 
America than in all the rest of the world put together. There 
are two high-class mathematical journals in America. It is 
doubtful whether there is one journal in Great Britain to which 
the same description can be applied. 

" The sceptre of the world has gone to the West. That is cer- 
tain, and yet the thought was always with me that this mag- 
nificent prosperity, intellectual and material, is only beginning. 
The valley of the Mississippi will play, perhaps, as great a part 
in human affairs in the centuries to come as the valley of the 
Nile in the centuries of the past. 

" I have spent eleven weeks in America, and all the paper in 
this ship would not hold the account of what I have seen and 
heard in that most wonderful country. The astronomer some- 
times wishes to see what another world is like, and when I took 
my first walk in New York I could not help saying to myself 
every moment that I had got there at last! I do not wonder at 
the pride Americans feel in their country and at their love of 
it. I gave forty-five lectures in various parts of the country. 
I got as far west as the Mississippi, and lives there the man that 
can cross that mighty river for the first time without some 
emotion ? 

" I cannot tell you of all the kindness and hospitality I re- 
ceived, and what I was able to accept was only a fraction of 
what was offered. All went well from first to last, and there 
was not an hour the whole time which had not at least three most 
interesting claimants, of which two had to be refused. The ease 
and comfort of travel in America strikes a visitor at once. Think 
of the dingy hole with a grate full of ashes and a spark or two 
of fire, with two gas burners, one of which won't light and the 
other is very dim, which is called a waiting-room in some of 
the best English stations. Visit a station here not merely in 
the great cities, but in scores of places, and what do you find ? 
A palatial hall generally of white marble and often with beau- 
tiful mural decorations. Floods of electric light. Double glass 

354 . 

Visits to Canada and United States 

doors through which you pass, it may be from zero outside, into 
a genial summer warmth inside. White floors, spotlessly clean. 
Rows of clean and comfortable seats in abundance. Fountains 
where you may drink at will the purest of ice-water. Around 
are the windows at which you buy your tickets for train or Pull- 
man. Newspapers are there, of course. Flower stalls are not 
wanting ; and, as everywhere else, the barber's shop is there, 
where you can also have a Pompeian massage for your com- 
plexion if you think it will do you good. The railway carriages 
are most comfortable. They are all through on the Swiss plan, 
and nicely warmed. The fares are much less than with us. 

" The Irish are ubiquitous ! I heard the sweet tones every- 
where. Galway was represented in a club porter at Boston ; 
Dorset Street, Dublin, in the hall porter at the Institute of 
Technology ; Tyrone in a majestic personage dominating the 
station at Philadelphia ; Limerick in a governess in Pennsyl- 
vania ; Wicklow in the guide to Pillsbury's mighty flour mills in 
Minnesota ; Dublin youths own the mightiest carpet shop in New 
York, and I fear we must also acknowledge the leaders of Tam- 
many, at last hurled from their usurpation at New York, as 
belonging to us." 




IN the spring of 1895 ^Y father and mother went for a con- 
tinental tour to the South of France and Italy. They visited 
Paris, Cannes, Monte Carlo, Genoa, Pisa, Rome, Naples, 
Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, and Lucerne. They were only 
away from England for a short time — about three weeks — but 
into that period they crowded as much sightseeing as was 

Departing from his usual custom, my father kept a diary 
during part of this tour. The first entry is dated Sunday, 
March 30th; the last is dated Saturday, April 13th. Unfortu- 
nately, the journal came to an end during the second visit to 
Rome, so that no record remains of what struck him most 
forcibly in Florence, Venice, or Milan. 

I do not propose to publish this diary at length. Much 
of it is concerned with ways and means of travelling, hotel 
accommodation and the like. Nevertheless, it contains some 
passages which show a remarkable power of observation and 
description. Another reason why I have refrained from literal 
transcription may be mentioned. When discussing the pub- 
lication of his "Reminiscences" a year or two ago, I well 
remember my father saying : " I think it is a mistake to publish 
diaries of travel. They are so much like what can be found 
in a guide book. I always skip all such matter when I come 
across it in a biography." 

In making excerpts from the diary I have borne this pre- 
cept in mind. It will be for the reader to say whether the 
following memoranda resemble anything which is to be found 
in an ordinary guide-book. 

The gardens at Baron Rothschild's villa at Cannes appear 
to have made a deep impression upon him : 

"Beneath the Hotel Belle Vue is the villa of Baron Roth- 
schild. We went into the garden as far as intruders might 


A Visit to the Riviera and Italy 

venture with decency. I never saw any mass of colour more 
gorgeous than the tulips of deep crimson at the entrance. This 
is a garden of artificial beauty alone." 

Features of Cannes dear to the heart of the botanist are 
thus described : 

"One of the most interesting features of Cannes is the 
root which the eucalyptus has taken. The tall grey stems of 
these trees are invariably to be seen playing the same part 
along boundaries and the like that rows of beeches or elms do 
at home. But although they are so far naturalised here as 
to be able to dispense entirely with protection, yet the frosts — 
and they have frosts at Cannes — wound them seriously. Many 
branches were badly frost-bitten by the severe winter which 
was just over. It does not seem, however, that the gum trees 
can be easily killed; in fact I should say that they would be 
more likely to oust all the native trees if allowed to do so. 
The palms had not suffered from the frosts, but at the same 
time they always appear to have been carefully planted and 
tended. They are all plainly exotics in this country. They 
would be at home on the other side of the Mediterranean, but 
they are not established here. To see the prickly pears grow- 
ing out of doors was also very interesting to a new-comer. 
But plainly their existence here is also on the same frail sort 
of tenure as, let us say, the shrubby veronicas are in Ireland. 
In a few very sheltered places these plants looked plump and 
hearty, but in other places they had evidently suffered severely 
from the cold. Although the plants had not wholly succumbed, 
many of their lobes were very sickly." 

Having received an invitation to visit Mr. (afterwards Sir 
Thomas) Hanbury's famous garden at La Mortola, near 
Mentone, he decided to drive there and back. His experiences 
when crossing the various frontiers are thus recorded : 

"Shortly after passing Mentone we reached a French sentry 
stationed on one side of a deep and very narrow ravine. This 
is the boundary between France and Italy. On the French side 
of this ravine there is a V-shaped mark on the rock to indi- 
cate the exact point. Our coachman explained to the sentrj% 
or douane officer, that we were returning, saying that we 
were only going to La Mortola, and with a nod of assent he 
allowed us to pass out of France and into Italy. The road then 
ascended for about a quarter of a mile across a strip of what 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

appeared to be a sort of No Man's Land. At the top we came 
to the Italian douane. Here we were first gruffly stopped by a 
subordinate, and then the douane officer appeared and asked 
the cocher for his passport. In it were set down the carriage 
and horses; he carefully looked over the horses, and finding 
that one horse (not having a blind eye) was not the horse 
mentioned in the passport, he thereupon looked very serious- 
Other officials came out to see whether this invasion of the 
Kingdom of Italy by a pair of horses with four eyes could 
be tolerated, when the passports had merely permitted three 
equine eyes to belong to that particular equipage. Our cocher 
had to go inside and sign certain declarations. At first I 
thought we should not be allowed through at all, and, indeed, 
Miss Hanbury told me afterwards that, according to the rules, 
we ought not to have been allowed in. All the time the 
douaniers never looked at us in the carriage, nor did they 
ask a question. I wondered whether they would examine my 
eyes next ! " 

Another passage of interest describes a visit to the Casino 
at Monte Carlo. I am positive that during the whole course of 
his life my father never "put money on a horse," or staked 
a penny on a gaming-table. One of his objections to betting 
and gambling was that the "bookie" in the one case and the 
"bank" in the other were always bound to be the winners in 
the long run. I was not, therefore, surprised to find, on 
perusing this journal, that he risked no money on the tables. 
But he did indulge in the luxury of a visit to the Casino, 
where the application of the law of probabilities evidently 
presented attractions to the mathematical mind : 

"In the evening we went to the Casino. We had to get 
our ticket of admission at the office on entering. I left my 
hat, coat, and umbrella in the office, and then we entered a 
magnificent hall, from which we passed into the superb series 
of saloons where the gaming-tables were placed. I was at 
once reminded of my visit to Ems, Wiesbaden, and Homburg 
thirty-three years ago. I had seen nothing like it since. The 
majority of the players at the roulette tables were dealing in 
five-franc pieces. But some were playing pretty deeply. I 
saw one man who at one stake lost >^i6o or so in gold pieces, 
and altogether he must have lost over ;^200 during the few 
minutes that we watched. At the rouge et noir card-tables 


A Visit to the Riviera and Italy 

only gold pieces are allowed. All the many tables were 
crowded, and I think there were quite as many, if not more, 
women players than men. On the average I should say that 
the bank wins about a tenth of the stakes. We saw no heavy 
wins, but one old and not bad-looking gentleman, who had 
several little piles of gold before him, seemed to be winning, 
and twice while I was looking the little piles had grown so 
much that he handed over a number to be transformed into 
notes which he deposited safely in his pocket. He seemed to 
be going, if not exactly on the doubling system, yet on some- 
thing like it. But, of course, everyone must lose in the long 
run. This whole place is saturated with the gaming spirit. In 
the hotel are notices to the effect that all meals must be paid 
for on the spot, that no cheques will be taken, that hotel and 
other bills must be discharged instantly they are presented. 
This shows the kind of customers they have. The whole 
state of Monaco lives solely on the profits of the gaming-house. 
The conversation one hears turns solely on gambling in gold, 
mine shares, and the like." 

On the following evening he paid a second visit : 
"In the evening I went over to the Casino. The play was 
an interesting sight. To-night I saw a man win heavily — 
;^8o three times running, and then he lost some small sum, 
and then won ;^i6o. As before, the greater number of players 
staked but small sums. I heard that some of the old French 
harridans who infest the place will snap up the winnings of 
any beginner when they get the chance. I heard no dispute — 
not a sound, in fact, came from any one of the seven or eight 
tables, except the voice of the croupier. There were also but 
few sightseers. Those that thronged round the table were all 
players, most of them hahitues who occupy the chairs and 
carefully mark on their cards how the tide of fortune runs. But 
I saw, for example, one quiet-looking gentleman move silently 
up to the table and just slip in his ten napoleons, and then, 
when the red card turned up and his coins were raked away, 
he just moved off again. There are thirty-six figures and o. 
If a stake is laid on a number, and that number turns up, the 
player receives thirty-five times his stake. If he bets on two 
numbers, and one of them wins, he gets seventeen times his 
stake. If on four numbers, and one of them wins, he gets 
eight times his stake. The rate of profit of the table is not high. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

I don't think at roulette it makes more than 3 per cent, of the 
money staked. It is an instructive demonstration of the truth 
of the Theory of ProbabiHties, that, having only such a slight 
margin in their favour, they are nevertheless able, in conse- 
quence of the magnitude of their transactions, to make such 
vast profits; for I am sure that ;;^30 at least is staked every 
throw ; probably double would be nearer the mark ; I have seen 
upwards of ;^200. The table must clear on ;^30 about ;£i 
on the average, and as they make about fifteen throws an 
hour (at least), this means ;^I5 per table per hour, and for 
the day's work of eleven hours this means jC^^S P^r table; 
and as there are seven or eight tables it is plain that the daily 
profits cannot fall short of ;{^i,2oo or so. Indeed, I should not 
be surprised if three times this sum was often realised. But 
3 per cent, is certainly a very moderate charge for the table 
to make, so that those who like gambling in this way can do 
so quite as cheaply as on the Stock Exchange, and they have 
also the means of judging here whether they are fairly treated, 
which the gamblers on the Stock Exchange have not. So, 
while South African shares and horse-racing occupy so much 
of the attention of the British public, I do not think it rests 
with them to say a word against the Casino at Monte Carlo. 
It is at least honest gambling." 

His interests at Monte Carlo were not, however, confined 
to the Casino : 

"The most beautiful palm that grows in this place is the 
Phcenix canariensis. Its foliage is splendid, and it seems 
hardier than the P. dactylifera, which seems to suffer in the 
hard winters and is not really acclimatised, a fact very evident 
from the circumstance that the dates do not ripen. But a very 
striking palm, with a smooth stem like a gigantic elephant's 
leg, is the Pritchardia. Then there are arborescent figs, Ficus 
macrophylla, which are specially good, and also arborescent 
aralias; some of the latter had tufts of berries just like the ivy." 

At Nice he made the following entry : 

"April 3rd. — The residence of the Queen is not a very 
striking place. What interested me far more was, that just 
opposite the front gate are the remains of a Roman amphi- 
theatre. The ruins are well preserved. At one place the seats 
up to the top are still there. Many of the arches are intact. 
I saw in the building those horizontal layers of red tile which 


A Visit to the Riviera and Italy 

I remember in the Pharos at Dover. What builders they were ! 
There is the mortar just as the Romans put it in 1,500 (?) years 
ago. This will be a good preparation for the Colosseum. I 
am not much given to emotion, but I think I felt a little in 
standing in the middle of the arena where gladiators fought 
and died, and where the Christians were given to the lions. 
F. was satisfied with a view from the carriage, and so she 
missed what I saw, namely, the two small sons of Princess 
Beatrice driving out." 

The visit to Pisa recalled memories of the great astronomer- 
mathematician who uttered the famous words, E pur si viuove: 

"First we went to the Leaning Tower. F. was contented 
with but a small part of the ascent, but I of course went to 
the top. There is a splendid view, from the snow-covered 
mountains on one side of the plain to the sea on the other. 
I was amazed at the flatness of the plain and its fertility. It 
is not easy to get to the edge of the tower so as to look over. 
Galileo must have had some framework erected on that 
memorable occasion. This is all duly set forth on the inscrip- 
tion at the base of the tower, which I copied into my pocket- 
book : 


Experimentis E Summa Hac Turri Super Gravium Corporum 

Lapsu Institutis 

Legibus Motus Detectis 

Mechanicen Condidit 

Ingentibusque Suis Posteriorumque Sophorum Inventis 


"The true theory of the Leaning Tower seems to be that 
the sinking commenced while the building was in progress of 
erection, and that the architect then endeavoured to mend 
matters by giving it a little turn in the opposite direction. 
Viewed under the blue sky of Pisa, this is truly an exquisite 
object, but it is not alabaster white. A large part has a 
yellowish tinge not over-pleasant to the eye. 

"The cathedral at Pisa, close by, is, of course, a lovely 
sight, but it was the famous lamp of Galileo which interested 
me most. The attendant guide assured us that it was ' always ' 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

It has been noted elsewhere in this volume that my father 
took a keen interest in geology for its own sake. But he 
was also of opinion that he who would study the heavenly 
bodies must wander in those misty regions where astronomy 
and geology meet, and that certain celestial phenomena can 
only be explained by reference to the history of our own planet, 
dating back to the time when "the earth was an infant at play." 
Vulcanology was the branch of geology which interested him 
most; "Krakatoa, the Mighty Volcano," was one of the most 
popular of his lectures. In these circumstances it is not sur- 
prising to find that he paid a visit to Naples and its environs, 
and that Vesuvius, Pompeii, and the Phlegraean Fields were 
replete with interest for him. The impression made upon him 
by his visit to the Mecca of the geologist is recorded in the 
diary as follows : 

After describing (in no very glowing terms) the drive along 
the coast from Naples, he proceeds : 

"April 8th. — At last, however, Pompeii was reached, and at 
the entrance we dismissed our carriage — a bad one it was, too, 
for which we had been charged a pound. There was a 
restaurant at the entrance, where we had lunch, and then 
we paid 2 lire each and entered Pompeii. A guide was at our 
disposal, but in Italy I found that guides are worse than use- 
less; they are always bent on some sinister object with the 
view of extortion, and they contrive to show you as little as 
possible of the things you most want to see. C. had warned 
me not to take a guide at Pompeii. However, one is included 
in the price of admission, and though he showed us no doubt 
a few things we might have missed, yet we should have done 
better had we said to him at the outset : ' Va Via ! ' which is 
a wonderful charm for getting rid of a beggar or any other 
similar tormentor. 

" But though we could not feel that we had seen the wonders 
of Pompeii in all their fullness, yet we had a day that will 
ever live in our memories. It was indeed a realisation of my 
lifelong wish to take a walk through that city which was pre- 
served to us by what seemed to be its destruction. First let 
me say that it is hardly correct to speak of Pompeii as being 
covered with ashes. The materials by which it was entombed 
have the appearance of volcanic pumice or similar material. 

"On entering we were first shown into the museum. Most 


A Visit to the Riviera and Italy 

of the really choice works of art and curiosities which ad- 
mitted of transportation, have been removed to the museum at 
Naples, which we were afterwards to visit, but there was much 
in the museum at Pompeii to interest us. The first objects I 
noticed were the remains of the locks to the doors. Not wholly 
unlike a modern ' Chubb ' were the facsimile models which had 
been formed of some of them. Perhaps the most interesting 
objects were the casts of the few bodies which were found. The 
bodies having disappeared, the hollows in the * ash ' were filled 
with plaster, by which means striking statues have been pro- 
duced. One of the most effective was that of a man who, in 
fleeing from the city, carried his money in gold coins in a belt 
around him. The belt is there directly under the cast, and the 
veritable coins are, we were told, preser\'ed in the museum at 
Naples. The cast of a woman who had fallen on her face is 
a graceful figure, and there was another pair which the guide 
said were mother and daughter, though how he knew this did 
not appear. The cast of a large dog was interesting also. 
Then many loaves of bread were to be seen which age had 
transformed into charcoal, but their shape was much the 
same as the loaves now made in Naples. Many vases and 
similar objects were also to be seen, but these we were told 
were much inferior to the specimens brought to the Naples 

"Then we commenced our tour through the streets. They 
were paved with ashlars, as the streets of Naples are now, but 
they were so narrow that the cartwheels had worn deep ruts, 
in some cases, I believe, fully five inches deep ; this at once 
speaks, as do many other things in the town, of the great 
antiquity of Pompeii. History, indeed, tells us that it existed 
for nearly four hundred years, and it is believed to have lasted 
much longer. The narrow streets were crossed by stepping- 
stones, the tops of which were flush with the sidewalks. Then 
we went into many of the houses ; for instance, into the 
banker's, where, in mosaic on the doorstep, was the inscrip- 
tion : * Salve Lucrum ' — Welcome Money. The shops were 
numerous, and there were the jars in which the wine and the 
oil were preserved. Mills for grinding corn were to be seen. 
At the corners of the streets were fountains. The water often 
appears to have issued from the mouth of a figure, and the 
way the orifice was worn testified to the antiquity of the foun- 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

tain, as did also the worn marks on the edge of the fountain 
where thirsty men placed their hands when getting a drink. 
It was very interesting to witness, so to speak, this super- 
position of one antiquity on another. Then, too, we visited 
the baths, in which there was a vaulted roof. As well as I 
remember, this was the only case in which the roof withstood 
the weight of the ashes under which Pompeii was buried. The 
baths are most elaborate. There was the seat on which the 
bathers sat, the receptacles for their clothes, the hot baths and 
the cold baths — ^and even the Turkish bath, where there was 
an inner lining to the room, leaving a space of a few inches in 
which the hot air circulated. I was amazed at the plumbing 
work of the Pompeians. The pipes appeared to be formed of 
lead rolled and brought together on the edge or overlapped. 
Instead of the wiped joint which the modern plumber produces, 
his Pompeian predecessor was only able to make a joint in a 
very cumbrous manner. I saw a few mosaic pavements with 
figures of animals such as I have seen at Boroughbridge. We 
went, of course, into the house of Glaucus, but did not see the 
memorable Cave Canem inscription. We saw the interesting 
wall paintings and the disposition of the rooms in the building 
of a wealthy and luxurious Roman noble. In many of the 
courts and houses the statues were still left, and truly graceful 
and beautiful objects they were. Sometimes we saw marble 
troughs or marble tables; sometimes little niches in which 
beautiful mosaic made a becoming surrounding for a beautiful 
statue. Of special interest was the writing on the walls re- 
ferring to pending elections. Sometimes, I must add, objects 
could not escape our notice which it would not be seemly to 
describe. Then we saw the great theatre and the smaller 
theatre, and adjoining it we were shown what are said to be 
the barracks of the gladiators. But we did not see the amphi- 
theatre, which lies at a little distance. About two-fifths of the 
whole area of Pompeii has now been uncovered, and the amphi- 
theatre is in a detached part. It was specially interesting to 
visit the actual spot where the excavations were in progress. 
They were digging down into a chamber with wall decorations. 
Many of the objects found are broken, not, we were told, by 
the picks of the workmen, but by the falling in of the roofs 
of the houses — quite an adequate cause, no doubt. Unfortu- 
nately the work which we were watching was only at the top 


A Visit to the Riviera and Italy 

of the room, and of course it would be at the bottom that objects 
of special interest would be found. But it was pleasing to see 
the gradual uncovering of a piece of mural painting in bright 
colours which had not seen the light for nearly 2,000 years. 
It would take many hours and many visits to see the whole 
of Pompeii. Baedeker would be better than any local guide, 
though no doubt the guides do show some few things. Our 
man seemed to be in a terrible hurry to get us through and 
get it all over. 

"We paid a visit to Herculaneum on our way to Pompeii. 
That town was first covered with ashes, which seem to have been 
consolidated by water, and then the whole place was sealed 
over by lava. We saw the well by the sinking of which the 
existence of Herculaneum beneath the ground was accidentally 
discovered. We explored the theatre by the dim light of a 
candle, but there is little of interest in comparison with Pompeii. 
I believe that Herculaneum was really a far greater place than 
Pompeii, and there can hardly be any doubt that there are many 
treasures buried there. But excavations do not seem possible 
on any very extensive scale, as another town lies on the top. 
The papyri which were discovered have been brought to the 
museum at Naples." 

On the following day my father paid the long-wished-for 
visit to Vesuvius : 

"After a drive of six or seven miles along the same route 
as we followed yesterday to Pompeii we turned off to the left, 
and then we ascended, still on the same wonderfully paved 
road, until we reached a height where there was a splendid 
view of the Bay of Naples. I think the Bay of Dublin, in the 
mere matter of scenery, has nothing to fear in the comparison. 
Four hours brought us to the funicular railway. After lunch 
we took our turn as members of a party of ten for the steep 
ascent in the car. There were altogether about one hundred 
and fifty on the expedition this day, so that the place was pretty 
crowded. However, all were duly attended to. The funicular 
is nearly a mile long up the cone. The ashes were blown about 
by the high wind so as to create a dust which was very trouble- 
some. Indeed, a pair of goggles would be necessary to enable 
the ascent to be made comfortably. When, in about eight 
minutes, we reached the top we were pounced upon in the 
dust storm and the high wind by the yelling gang of miscreants 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

and beggars that infest all Naples and its vicinity. These 
fellows had ropes and straps, and bawled out that they would 
haul you to the actual summit for two lire. Of course, their 
services were perfectly unnecessary. Cook has provided guides 
at the top ; moreover, there is a broad pathway over the 
cinders. The wind was blowing so as to carry the column of 
steam and fumes away from our direction, but we soon got 
whiffs, though I must say the sulphurous smell was not very 
pronounced. Gases and steam were coming from small holes 
around, and two or three I tried were so hot that the hand 
could not be kept there. F. had found the ascent in the 
funicular enough for her, and she remained in the shed at 
the upper end until the rest of us came back. I made my way 
by myself, for my travelling companion, Mr. Barton, got 
separated from us in the ascending cars, and we only met 
later. A few minutes brought us to the edge of the crater. 
There was a basin-shaped cavity perhaps half a mile across, 
and on the far side of it there was much yellow and bright 
orange visible. The smoke and ashes were discharged from a 
cone which was at the side. The top of it was above our heads, 
so that we could not look into it. The cone is a new one, 
having been developed within the last six months. We were 
told that the mountain seems to be threatening an outbreak of 
considerable magnitude. While we were there, there was a 
rushing sound, and a large number of stones were shot up I 
should say thirty feet above the crater, and tumbled down quite 
as near to us as was pleasant ; some of the stones, or blocks of 
pumice, or whatever they were, were visibly red hot even on 
this splendid day. I gathered a few specimens to bring home. 
We were rather hurried, and the driving wind, charged as it 
was with particles of cinder, made the sojourn very unpleasant. 
I should like, however, to have spent a couple of hours there 
at my leisure. The fact is that the way to profit by a visit to 
such a place as Naples is to spend the whole vacation in its 
vicinity. Use the first visit in getting a general impression 
and in learning the rules and practices by which the guides, 
as they call themselves, swindle, mislead, and frustrate you 
in every possible way ; and then pay a second visit with a 
relentless ' Va Via ' to all guides and beggars of every descrip- 
tion. They are always an intolerable nuisance. 

"The various lava streams are of much interest. I was par- 


A Visit to the Riviera and Italy 

ticularly struck with the curious form the lava occasionally 
assumes, like the gnarled roots of trees. Various impressive 
pictures were also given of the fluidity of lava. Looking down 
from above, it could be seen like great branching streams spread- 
ing out on the plains below. From the top of the mountain it 
was indeed easy to see how such a comparative trifle as the 
inundation of Herculaneum was accomplished. Nor does it 
seem unlikely that other inundations might ensue which would 
submerge much of the present suburbs of Naples. In the frame 
of mind engendered by a drive through these streets of Naples, 
it seemed hardly unreasonable to wish that such a consumma- 
tion might be effected. 

"On our way down from the mountain we stopped at the 
Observatory. It seemed to me a very poor place. The instru- 
ments were in charge of some person who did not seem to under- 
stand much about them. The building is, however, a splendid 
one, and it seems a pity that such a place should not be well 
worked. Of course, I need hardly say that it only exists for 
the purpose of studying the earthquake phenomena. The 
seismometer rested on springs and stood simply on a deal 
table. Our drive back was tolerably pleasant. We saw the 
great P. & O. steamer — I forget her name — which was blown 
ashore a few weeks ago, and in that tideless sea has not yet 
been got off. Then back to table d'hote and bed. There 
were plenty of people in the hotel disposed to be friendly, 
but after so many hours in the open air sleep was acceptable. 
"We toot a peep at the light from Vesuvius before going to 
bed. Of course, I need hardly say that in the present state of 
the mountain the so-called flames seen from the crater are merely 
the reflection of the incandescent materials from the matter 
which has been projected aloft." 

"April loth. — The first part of it we devoted to the museum 
at Naples. It is an admirably arranged structure. Of course 
the chief interest centres in the Pompeian collection. There 
are brought together all the choicest objects which could be 
transported from Pompeii. There are to be found the small 
objects, the coins, and the medical and surgical appliances. 
There are to be seen many bottles of Pompeian oil and wine. 
The collection of glass truly astonished me. There are the 
bedsteads, the vases, the grains of corn and other cereals, 
and multitudes of other objects too numerous to mention. Many 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

of the best frescoes are exhibited here. But the colours have 
faded. Indeed in any case the Pompeian frescoes do not re- 
present any very exalted style of artistic development. The 
Romans were mechanics and engineers, but not artists, and 
the choice works of art were brought from Greece. 

"In the afternoon we went by train to Pozzuoli, the Puteoli 
of the Romans, where St. Paul spent seven days. This 
was an exceedingly interesting trip, and would have been 
a perfect one on this exquisite day except for the intolerable 
nuisance of the guides. I promised one of these miscreants 
i]4 lire, and his whole object was to drag us off to things 
which we did not want to see and to get us to ' try the 
wines,' and, in fact, to frustrate us generally. We missed 
much that we should have seen, owing to this scoundrel. 
Of course the best way would be to make one visit with 
the guide and then to make another privately. In the only 
places where his services would have been useful he was not 
forthcoming. But, all the same, we saw much. The first thing 
was the Serapeum. Of course I had been long familiar with 
the Temple of Jupiter Serapis, in the frontispiece to Lyell's 
' Principles of Geology,' but it was, indeed, interesting to see 
these celebrated columns with the holes bored by the shells. 
The lower part of each pillar was protected by the ashes which 
had fallen around it, so that when the submergence took place 
it was the intervening zone which was attacked. Then when 
the land rose again, the whole was brought out of the water. 
Next we went to the Solfatara. This is one of those craters in 
the Phlegraean fields to which I have so often referred in my 
lectures. The entrance fee is, as usual, half a lira. We entered 
a circular area filled with undergrowth and surrounded by a 
range of cliffs. The soil is largely of white material, used for 
cement in many places, and hot air and sulphurous vapour 
are breaking out. At the entrance of the cavern there is a 
great volume of sulphurous vapours rushing forth, and for a 
few coppers a man stoops down and goes in and brings out 
specimens of sulphur crystals and minerals almost too hot to 
touch. Then another man takes a big stone like a cannon-ball 
and bangs it down on the ground. It is supposed to show 
the internal fluidity of the earth by the hollow resonance and 
the peculiar trembling that is experienced, but I cannot truly 
assert that the evidence was quite convincing. Here, again, 


A Visit to the Riviera and Italy 

the wretched guide misled us, and prevented us from seeing 
certain caves we much wanted to visit. His little game was 
to get us to buy some of the ' very good wine ' which was to be 
had there. But it was quite plain that we were here actually 
walking over the floor of a crater which had been active once, 
and to all appearance might easily become so again. 

"Then we went to the third of the sights at Pozzuoli, 
namely, the amphitheatre. The aim of the guide was to induce 
us to go to Baiae, where we did not intend to go, so at the amphi- 
theatre he said his duties were at an end, and I gave him the 
sum agreed on, and half more, and oflf he went. It will illus- 
trate the cussedness of these gentry when I say that the amphi- 
theatre was the one place where a guide would have been useful. 
His services were supposed to be included in the admission of 
I lira each, but, of course, in conformity with Neapolitan 
practice, directly we had paid there was no guide forthcoming. 
We had to grope our way round as well as we could. It 
is truly a splendid amphitheatre — not, of course, nearly so 
vast as the Colosseum, but it would certainly seat 20,000 or 
more spectators. I was amazed at the highly elaborate structure 
of the part beneath the amphitheatre itself. It was honey- 
combed with great corridors, with the dens for the wild beasts, 
and with trap-doors through which they could be shot up 
into the amphitheatre, either to kill the Christians or to be 
slain coram populo by the gladiators. Amphitheatres are 
abundant ; this is the fourth that I have seen in Italy. 

"As we stood at the station a man offered to drive us back 
to Naples — seven miles — for 2 lire; so we closed with him, 
and had an interesting trip home, along the shore for the 
greater part of the way. A range of hills dividing us from 
Naples was pierced by a long tunnel. It was lighted with 
lamps in the dark part, and at the middle was an elevator by 
which ascent could be made. There was a tram-line also through 
the tunnel, and a rich Neapolitan odour pervaded it from end 
to end. A quiet evening closed a pleasant day." 

"April nth {Thursday). — We went down to meet Mr. 
Bidder at the Aquarium, the celebrated Zoological Station at 
Naples. This place interested me much, and I had the pleasure 
of being introduced to Dr. Dohrn, the illustrious director; and 
indeed he may well be proud of the ' Station ' when he is able 
to say, as he did, that half of the biological work done all over 
Y 369 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

the world is done here. This is a wonderful degree of success 
and made our visit there one of much interest. Mr. Bidder is 
one of their most diligent and successful students. He has 
worked at ' Sponges, ' and is said to know more about them 
than any man living. The Station was founded by Dr. Dohrn, 
who had about ;^3,ooo of his own to start with. After much 
negotiation the muncipality of Naples gave him the site in the 
gardens on the sea front. But the ;^3,ooo was not sufficient 
for the erection of this splendid place. He was on the 
brink of failure and despair, when Balfour and Foster and 
some others in Cambridge came to the rescue and provided 
;^ 1,000 to help a little further. Then I believe the German 
Government gave ;^4,ooo, and I believe the Italians gave some- 
thing; and in one way and another the Zoological Station at 
Naples became an accomplished fact. 

"To provide the current expenses of ;^7,ooo a year, tables 
are let to different countries or institutions. Cambridge, 
Oxford, and the British Association each pay the sum of ^^loo 
a year for a table. Each of these bodies can then send a man 
to work at the table. At present the Cambridge table is worked 
by our old friend Laurie, of King's College. He spent an 
evening with us at the hotel. Working at a * table ' means 
having the whole resources of the place at your disposal. 
Boats dredge and bring in the material, and there are tanks, 
chemical and photographic laboratories, and libraries, so 
that all biological researches can be carried on in the most 
advantageous manner. There are, I believe, about forty tables, 
but they do not defray all the cost. The balance is made up 
by subscriptions from various governments. Bidder explained 
to me that the special advantage of the Station lay not so much 
in the fact that it brought the resources of the Mediterranean to 
naturalists, as that it had now such an international character 
that all biological workers there met each other, or at all events 
heard of each other. It is, indeed, a biological museum in the 
highest sense. It illustrates the value of an autocracy. Dr. 
Dohrn is the master of everything. 

" The Aquarium is an appendage to the Station ; it occupies 
the ground floor, with apartments overhead for the scientific 
work. But of all the aquariums one has ever seen or heard 
of, there is none like this. Nor is this to be wondered at. 
There is a twofold reason. In the first place there is the Bay 


A Visit to the Riviera and Italy 

of Naples, with all the resources of the ^lediterranean ; and 
then above stairs is the ever-active band of forty of the most 
eminent biologists in the world engaged in the study of marine 
creatures, ever stimulating the capture of new and interesting 
specimens, and seeing that those which are exhibited shall be 
properly tended. 

"As to actual fishes, I did not see anything which impressed 
me so forcibly as the muraena, or Roman eel. This was a great 
delicacy in the time of the Caesars, and we are told that they 
were kept in ponds and specially fattened. They are like 
congers, with a deeper back fin and elaborately marked with 
golden lines. They live sociably with a few congers, and 
seemed to delight in staying with the greater part of their bodies 
concealed in old pottery and drain pipes, which were provided 
for the purpose. I would far rather eat a conger than a muraena 
so far as looks go. There were several large mullet and other 
fish, and an electric torpedo, which is common in the Bay. 
One of these creatures is always available for visitors to experi- 
ment on. Mr. Bidder says, with obvious truth, that the source 
of the electricity is in this wise. Under ordinary circum- 
stances it is an electric current which gives the muscular 
stimulus; and, generally speaking, of course most of the 
energy developed is muscular energy, but under certain 
circumstances the energy developed is mainly electrical. 
Natural selection might obviously produce this as a develop- 
ment, to a monstrous extent, of an agent which in a much less 
developed form had fulfilled a totally different purpose. In 
many of the tanks there were remarkable molluscs. Chiefly 
did I notice there gigantic whelks, or creatures of that descrip>- 
tion, whose shells are very familiar. They seemed to thrive. 
There were also many kinds of sea urchins which appeared 
vigorous, and some of the feathery starfishes were wonderful. 
There were few living corals, the waters they inhabit being too 
deep to be represented in the Aquarium; but there was one 
beautiful orange coral which flourished. Bidder also showed 
us many sponges, in which we could see the currents of water 
flowing in through the small holes and out through the 
large ones. The tanks were, indeed, filled with marv^ellous 
objects. I can only mention one or two of the pelagic animals. 
One of the most striking was a remarkable beroe, the action 
of whose cilia was like pearls of light running along his 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

meridians. Then, too, there was the Basket of Venus, a lovely 
delicate transparent creature. These live but a short time in 
the Aquarium. To enable them to be seen they are placed in 
large glass tubes six or eight inches in diameter, which stand 
up vertically in the tanks. 

"After our visit to the tanks was over, we had only a 
quarter of an hour for a run through the great biological 
laboratories. There we saw Laurie at his work — upon annelids, 
I think ; and then we returned to the hotel, and off to the train 
for Rome." 

To judge from the diary, the famous Baths of Caracalla 
were the chief object of interest in the Imperial city. Under 
date April 13th my father wrote : 

"In the afternoon we went to the Baths of Caracalla, a truly 
imposing structure, larger than St. Peter's. It must have been 
gorgeous in the extreme. The interior of the great hall, the 
Sudatorium, was supported by majestic columns of porphyry 
brought from the eastern Egyptian deserts. But some of the 
Popes, wanting porphyry to decorate St. Peter's, pulled down 
these columns — and with them the roof of the mighty bath. 
Even that they could not do except in such a bungling manner 
that they killed eighteen men. The roof was made of con- 
crete, and gigantic blocks of it are to be seen. The secret of 
these colossal buildings is that slave labour was employed. 
The slaves captured in war were worked to death if necessary 
in these huge works. But the Romans must have been won- 
derful engineers and architects, and must have possessed 
marvellous skill in organisation to apply all that unskilled 
labour to the construction of such wonderful edifices. It seems 
hard to believe how merely wood fuel (and, of course, they 
had no coal) could have been adequate in maintaining the 
necessary temperatures for a Sudatorium in chambers rivalling 
cathedrals in magnitude. It is stated that 1,000 people could 
use the Baths of Caracalla at once. Around it were gymnastic 
grounds and music-rooms; and it seems that all were free." 




SIR ROBERT became a golfer in or about the year 1892. He 
first joined the University Golf Club, which at that time 
had its links on Coldham Common, Cambridge, but he sub- 
sequently went to Royston, where he soon became a familiar 
figure on the heath. He used to say that golf was the only 
outdoor game which a one-eyed man could play, as the act of 
hitting the ball made no demand on the faculty by which the 
two eyes judge distance. He was what Bernard Darwin would 
call a remorselessly steady player, and many is the time he 
beat the man with a low handicap. 

Amongst those who used to play golf with him considera- 
tions of space will only permit me to mention four. The first 
of these was his brother-in-law, Mr. L. E. Steele, with whom he 
played at Royston every summer for eighteen years. He also 
played with the Rev. F. Brindley, a son of the head master to 
whom allusion has been made in the early part of this volume.* 
"Fred " Brindley was a constant and ever-welcome visitor at the 
Observatory. He joined in many a game at Royston. Here 
is a characteristic letter written by my father to him (July 2nd, 
1902) : 

"It is very good of you to have remembered the birthday. 
Yes, I am sixty-two, and as I took 130 to go round Royston when 
I was fifty-four, and as I only take 104 now, it is easy to work 
out that by the time I am ninety I shall have lowered the record 
on Royston Heath ! Is not this interesting ? 

" We are going to spend a few weeks at Cromer in the autumn, 
and then I shall do my best on the links there." 

Another golfing friend was Mr. Arthur Barker, F.R.C.S. 
He was, and I believe still is, a member of the Royston Golf 
Club, and my father, coming over from Cambridge, used to 
meet him there for many a pleasant game. The families of 

• See p. ig, ante. 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

Barker and Ball have been intimately associated for many- 
years. Two letters which he received from my father show 
that Mr. Barker was something very much more than a mere 
golfing acquaintance : 

"R.M.S. Saxonia, 

"January i^h, 1902. 

" I am returning from America oppressed by the feeling that 
the one opportunity of my life has been lost ! 

"In the Mississippi, near Davenport, stands an island of 
1,000 acres preserved by the Government, and still in its 
primaeval simplicity. The only thing that has been permitted in 
the way of interference with the natural beauties of that island 
is the formation of a golf course. I was there. I saw the island 
and I was invited to play, but like Mahomet when he looked 
upon Damascus, I refused, and for the same reason : ' I know one 
paradise' [Royston, fare, is. 5d. from Cambridge.], 'I will not 
look upon another.' If I had not been driven by a slave driver 
to catch a train, I am afraid Mahomet's reasoning (which has 
only this moment occurred to me) would not have prevailed. 
No, I didn't play a game all the time! 

" But I had a magnificent trip from first to last. I caught all 
my trains, gave all my lectures (some forty-five), and gathered 
up all the time all the entertainment and instruction I could. I 
have never spent an equally busy period of instruction and 
interest. The kindness and hospitality of the Americans was 
boundless, and, I think, I may say I have seen every side of 
American life from the far West to the Fifth Avenue. It will 
take twenty rounds at Royston to tell you of my wanderings, of 
the places I saw and the people I met. The conclusion I have come 
to is that Britain may put up its shutters! We are beaten to 
nothing not only in trade or wealth (I don't care about that), 
but in science, education, and wholesome life and progress ! " 

In 1905 Mr. Barker had invited Sir Robert to make a joint 
golfiing holiday with him. He received the following reply 
(April 2nd, 1905) : 

" There is nothing I would enjoy more than the Cruden Bay 
trip and with you. 

" Not to mention the excellent company, the time would suit 
me, the golf would suit me, the tariff would suit me, and I know 
I should like the place, and the porridge. I don't want any 
whisky and they don't provide it, you tell me, so the thing seems 
ideal. There is only one difficulty, but it is a fatal one. We 
are now, as you know, living a life, and a very happy life, too, 
as Darby and Joan, as the young birds have flown. I am obliged 
to leave home sometimes for short occasions on business, it may 


Sir Robert and the Game of Golf 

be for lectures, or for public functions that cannot properly be 
missed, and in a couple of months the Irish Lights cruise must be 
made. I don't mean to say that these trips are only business, for 
I enjoy them greatly, but, nevertheless, they are business and 
have to be attended to, as grievous loss would otherwise ensue. 

"I shorten these necessary absences by every hour I can, but 
the conclusion to which these remarks tends is that I must sternly 
refuse any such attractions as those of the trip to Cruden Bay. 

" My dear and valued friend, I have told you exactly how the 
matter stands, and you won't be angry with me. I shall be 
free all next term for a round at Royston whenever you will do 
me the honour." 

The last golfing friend to whom I would refer is Mr. J. D. 
Duff, Fellow of Trinity College. He was a member of the 
Royston Club, and as a resident in Cambridge, who lived not 
far from the Observatory, he was nearly always available. My 
father used to enjoy greatly his games with Mr. Duff. Of him 
he wrote to a friend (August 26th, 1903) : 

" Duff, my golfing companion, is dividing his summer between 
golf and learning Russian ! He does not know which is the most 
amusing, and certainly pronounces Russian the better exercise!" 

Mr. Duff has very kindly written an account of his relations 
with my father. I gladly insert it in these pages for a special 
reason : he has been able to express his opinion with a freedom 
not permitted to one who is nearly related to the subject of 
this memoir : 

"Sir Robert Ball's life included many activities in which 
I had no share. Of the sciences, in which his reputation was 
made, I knew nothing; nor did I ever do business with him, 
or sit on any board of which he was a member. Yet for more 
than ten years I had the happiness to enjoy very intimate 
relations with him. This came about because we were in the 
habit of playing a game which brought us together for five 
or six hours at a time, and alone together, except that we each 
had a small boy walking at our heels and carrying the imple- 
ments of our game. The game was golf; and the place where 
we played was Royston Heath. 

"It was at Royston that I first saw Sir Robert and first 
made his acquaintance — about the year 1900. Soon afterwards 
it became a settled thing that we should play there once a week, 
generally on Saturday, during term time and Long Vacation, 
if engagements allowed and the weather were at all tolerable. 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

"It takes a long time to play golf at Royston from Cam- 
bridge. There is a train journey of thirteen miles, and the 
trains do not fit. Then a considerable distance divides the 
Observatory from the station at Cambridge, and a shorter 
distance Royston Station from the Heath. And, after all this, 
there is an exasperating walk between the club-house and the 
first tee. Yet, if you had Sir Robert for your companion, 
you did not find all these stages and delays tedious, nor yet 
the interval that followed between tea and the returning train. 
His custom was to drive from the Observatory, and call for 
me either at my house or in College. Arrived at Royston, 
we drove to the Heath in a bus, had a mouthful of lunch, and 
started for the first tee. He never went to Royston in his 
golfing clothes, but changed there before and after playing. 
It was a marked trait in his character that he disliked anything 
slovenly or slipshod in the way of dress ; he would have agreed 
heartily with Scott's objection to ' bedgown and slipper tricks ' 
for able-bodied men. Yet he was not at all critical of other people 
who might be less particular as to their travelling garb. In play- 
ing, he wore flannel clothes, dark jacket and light trousers, 
dark cloth cap, and tennis shoes with stout soles. He did not 
smoke himself, and in returning from Royston he generally 
avoided the smoking carriages, which were apt then (for things 
have improved since, and third-class smokers have learned 
better habits) to be somewhat unattractive after plying all day 
between Cambridge and London. 

"The heath at Royston was not intended by Nature for 
golf; the soil is chalk and the hazards are artificial. One of 
these hazards is, or was, a plantation of whin bushes on the 
way to the thirteenth hole. When Sir Robert first saw this 
obstacle he laughed and said to me : ' If whins would grow 
here at all, the whole heath would be covered with them.' 
Time proved him to be right : the whins never did well, and 
now offer no impediment to the feeblest golfer. Yet, in spite 
of natural defects, the care of the green committee and the 
feet of many golfers have done wonders. Apart from golf, 
the heath is a delightful place, with fine, fresh air blowing 
over it, and wide views of a great surrounding plain of corn- 
fields and distant woods. Many parts of it are covered with 
all the flowers that grow on chalk, from the Pulsatilla and 
cowslips of spring to the spiraea and blue scabious of late 


Sir Robert and the Game of Golf 

summer; milkwort, blue and red, grows all over it, and there 
are many kinds of orchis. Natural knowledge of all kinds came 
easy to Sir Robert, and I learnt from him the names of many 
of these plants. I think we both felt prouder of our pretty 
Pulsatilla when he had looked it out in his Bentham and found 
that it was ' rare.' There it is far from rare : parts of the 
heath are blue with it about Easter time. 

"He took pains with his game, and improved steadily for 
some years. He was one of those golfers to whom the introduc- 
tion of the rubber-cored ball made a real difference in the 
success and pleasure of their game. The first of these balls 
was the Haskell ; and there was also an inferior variety called, 
I think, the Kemshall, of which I had procured some specimens. 
He was rather unwilling to abandon the old ' gutty,' which he 
had always used; but I did induce him one day to play with 
a Kemshall, and his conversion was instantaneous and com- 
plete. He carried few wooden clubs, but a fair number of 
irons, with which he often did useful work when approaching 
the hole ; and he was a careful and steady putter. Before long 
he was able to complete the round in considerably less than 
a hundred strokes. But he played golf in the right spirit — the 
spirit which would have satisfied even that remarkable purist 
of golf, the late Mr. George Glennie : the card and pencil were 
never to his liking; he cared little for his score and much for 
his match. We never took cards from the club-house; we paid 
no heed to monthly medals or bogey competitions ; but we each 
worked hard to defeat the other, and spent many happy hours 
in that endeavour. 

" Ball was an excellent partner, and entirely free from those 
faults which mar some of the best of men when they have a 
golf-club in their hands. He was incapable of arriving at the 
hole-side and there stating that he was totally unaware whether 
he had played five or six. When his antagonist played the 
most infamous strokes, he never expressed either surprise or 
pity; when a putt of six inches was missed, he never laughed. 
Yet good men have done such things. His native tact told 
him that a stony silence is the only true politeness on these 
melancholy occasions. He realised, too, that the game had an 
ancient and honourable history, and he treated it with respect : 
he would never have proposed to a partner to ignore stymies, 
or to omit the bye and walk home, when the match was over I 

Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

If he had a fault as a golfer, it was that he moved rather slowly 
up the steep Royston hills. But he was always most willing 
to let others pass; and, if the couples behind him were some- 
times kept back, he was such a general favourite that to be 
kept back by him was no grievance. 

"On the way to Royston, and still more on the course, we 
talked constantly on all kinds of subjects. There were few 
things we did not talk about except the ' shop ' of our respec- 
tive studies; and that abstinence probably did something to 
make Royston a more complete change. Yet I heard much 
from him of contemporary men of science, all of whom he 
knew, and whom he was in the habit of meeting at the Royal 
Society and elsewhere. I once said to him that I was one of 
the few persons in England who had never heard him lecture. 
At the time he said nothing; but the next time that he gave 
a popular lecture in Cambridge — I believe it was for the benefit 
of the Y.M.C.A. — he sent me tickets, and I heard him lecture 
on * Nebulae,' and saw at once how well he deserved his repu- 
tation as a lecturer. 

"But our talk ordinarily turned on more general subjects. 
He had seen much of life, and seen it with an observant eye ; 
and his remarks — whether on the ways of men and women he 
had known, or on the causes of success and failure in life, or 
on marriage and the training of children — were always worth 
hearing. It seemed to me that, beyond most men, he under- 
stood the rules of a game more complicated than golf — the 
game of life — and that he practised them with success. Yet no 
man was more actively kind to those who had proved less able 
to master the rules and had lost most of the holes in life's round 
to victorious fortune. He had, with an Irishman's face, an 
Irishman's love of fun, and his sense of humour was one of 
the most obvious things about him. But one always felt that 
behind this there was no common degree of practical sense 
and of that shrewdness which is sometimes supposed to be 
monopolised by another part of Great Britain. I suppose that 
he had his share of troubles and worries, but he kept those to 
himself. His good spirits were unfailing. He was always an 
easy and copious talker. At times he told stories ; yet he never 
fell into the pitfall digged for the feet of most men who tell 
them. From him I never heard a story which I knew already, 
or a story which failed to amuse. Many of his best stories 


Sir Robert and the Game of Golf 

were dry sayings of Americans. He knew that country and 
had a marked Hking for its people. He admired their achieve- 
ments in astronomy; and he admired also their mastery over 
the minor arts of practical life. Thus I remember his praising 
the skill of American barbers as far beyond the European 
standard; I believe he said that, after one of these artists had 
shaved you, it was superfluous labour to shave the next day ! 

"I have said that Sir Robert Ball was a general favourite. 
It was one of the first things that you noticed when you went 
about with him. Everyone knew him, and everyone liked him. 
It was curious to watch the railway guards and porters, the 
club servants and the caddies : every face brightened at his 
greeting. On the heath it was the same : if we came within hail 
of a couple, one of the two was sure to recognise him and 
speak. A superficial observer might have supposed that a 
man so universally popular dealt only in pennyworths of friend- 
ship, so that everyone got some from him and no one got 
much. But such a supposition would have been utterly wrong. 
Just as he seemed to combine the light heart of the Irishman 
with the long head of the Scotchman, so his pleasantness to all 
the world did not exclude the power of deep and strong attach- 
ment to particular persons. If you were his friend, he had, 
more than any other man I have known, the power to make 
you feel, without any demonstrativeness on his part, that your 
friendship was pleasant to him. He had, what is rarer than is 
generally supposed, a keen sense of his friend's joys or 
sorrows. Nor was his friendship limited to yourself. If he 
visited a place where your boys were at school, he hunted them 
out and tipped them ; your mother and sisters were people whom 
he wished to know and took trouble to see. How many friends 
can any man count who will do all this as a matter of course ? 

"We played our last round of golf together on Monday, 
January 15th, 1912. The day before he had taken my children 
round the Observatory and shown them the great telescopes. At 
Royston he seemed in his usual health ; but he walked very slowly 
— so slowly that we had to omit several holes in order to catch 
our train. That was the end of one of life's pleasant things. 

"This is a bright day in April, and on Royston Heath the 
Pulsatilla is even now opening its purple flowers to the sun. 
But there are some for whom neither place nor flower can ever 
have quite the same charm again." 



BEFORE he left Ireland my father took no very active interest 
in politics. He was known to be a Unionist, but it is 
probably true to say that his scientific attainments had earned 
the respect and admiration of every Irishman, whether Unionist 
or Nationalist, Protestant or Roman Catholic. When the 
second Home Rule Bill was under discussion he chanced to 
be at an entertainment in Dublin where many eminent men 
were gathered together. A cleric who had attained high 
preferment in the Roman Catholic Church was at pains to 
assure the Astronomer Royal that, whatever changes might 
be made in Ireland when Home Rule was achieved, men of 
his standing would not be interfered with. "I am glad to 
hear it," was the reply. "As the name of Sackville Street has 
recently been changed to O'Connell Street, I had grave appre- 
hension lest a Nationalist government might begin to tamper 
with the constellations. I feared I should live to see the day 
when I should ' look on great O'Brien sloping slowly to the 
West ! ' " * 

He went to a political meeting for the first time on 
February 15th, 1893. Writing from Cambridge to Mrs. 
Millington, he said : 

" This evening I went for the first time in my life to a political 
meeting to hear Mr. Blake, formerly Prime Minister of Canada, 
and now an Irish Nationalist member. There is an extra- 
ordinary difference between the smooth way in which they present 
Home Rule over here and the actual reality as we know it. But 
Gladstone has very few supporters here, notwithstanding that 
his daughter as head of one of the Newnham halls is a nota- 
bility of the place." 

He had something to say about Old Age Pensions and the 
Coal Tax which was imposed during the Boer War in a letter 
dated April 23rd, 1901 : 

* See "Locksley Hall," v. 4. 

Sir Robert and Politics 

"I read with much interest about the Old Age Pensions. The 
cost of this awful w^ar would have provided for ever 400,000 
pensions of 5s. a week. Is not the wrath of the coal owners 
splendid ? The men who have been fleecing us to the tune of 
los. or 15s. of a rise in coal last year are now whining that a 
rise of is. will paralyse trade and ruin the country. I hope for 
once Hicks Beach will sit tight. If he does not I will become a 
Home Ruler. He ought to have made the tax half-a-crown. I 
saw somewhere lately a calculation showing that the abnormal 
profits pouched by those coal owners in last season exceeded 

In 1902 it was rumoured that Mr. Lecky, who with Sir 
Edward Carson represented Trinity College, Dublin, in Parlia- 
ment, was about to be raised to the Peerage. The question 
having been mooted as to who should succeed him, it was 
suggested that Sir Robert Ball should come forward. 

He decided not to become a candidate. Dr. Salmon, who 
wrote approving his decision, expressed some interesting views 
on University representation : 

" I consider you have been wisely advised in deciding not to 
allow your name to be put forward. If you had remained at 
Dunsink I should not have approved of your being absent. Lecky 
has made a first-rate figure-head for us, and you, too, would have 
been a creditable one ; but as things are we are not likely to secure 
anyone whose name is known outside our island. The claim for 
Universities to representation has of late years been strongly criti- 
cised, but it has been a good practical answer that the three 
constituencies send such representatives as Foster, Jebb, and 
Lecky. On these grounds I think the University authorities are 
well justified in not being severe in their requirements from 
eminent professors. Macaulay notes with pleasure that Cam- 
bridge was represented by Sir Isaac Newton in a deputation to 
James II. If the Cambridge authorities could have strained a 
point in your case, all Universities would have been the better for 
its lead. I admit that in your case a good deal of straining 
would be necessary." 

In 1904 he was Chairman of the Cambridge Universitv 
Representation Committee. Sir Richard Jebb having been 
chosen as candidate to represent the University in Parliament, 
he wrote to Sir Robert (January 22nd) : 

" I am grateful to the meeting over which you have presided 
for their decision to support my candidature in conjunction with 
that of Mr. Rawlinson." 


Reminiscences of Sir Robert Ball 

The committee supporting Sir R. Jebb included the Rt. 
Hon. Austen Chamberlain, M.P., and the Rt. Hon. Alfred 
Lyttelton, M.P. 

Apart from University politics my father did on one or two 
occasions — notably during the General Election of 1906 — enter 
the wider political arena. He addressed public meetings in 
support of Mr. Almeric Paget, who was candidate for the town 
of Cambridge. But the atmosphere of political meetings was 
uncongenial to him. In his element on the lecture platform, he 
was out of it when attempting to convince the sturdy and in- 
dependent elector. At one meeting he was much disconcerted 
by an interruption from the back of the hall : " I say, Pro- 
fessor, you've got your eye to the wrong end of the telescope ! " 

In December, 1905, Mr. S. H. Butcher was chosen to stand 
for the University of Cambridge. He wrote to Sir Robert 
(December 17th) : 

" Let me thank you for your telegram, so promptly sent, 
containing, the decision of the meeting. To receive so unanimous 
an invitation is a signal honour ; no one could feel it more than 
I do. Yesterday evening I could merely wire in a word or two 
the fact of acceptance; but may I now add to that a request 
that you will express to your Committee and, if possible, to a 
larger body of my supporters my profound and grateful appre- 
ciation of the honour." 

At the Election in January, 1906, which resulted in the 
return of Mr. S. H. Butcher and Mr. J. F. P. Rawlinson, K.C., 
as members for the University, Sir John Gorst was the opposing 
candidate. Mr. Rawlinson has been good enough to record 
his impression of Sir Robert as Chairman of the Representation 
Committee at a time when Cambridge politics were in a some- 
what troubled state. He wrote as follows : 

" Your father carried out the work preliminary to and con-